Musical Chairs at the Istanbul Patriarchate

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There was a time when the nine-year-old crisis at the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul was close to a resolution. But new developments have given a different spin to the problem, sinking the community back into a vicious situation. Nothing gives more comfort to the Turkish authorities than to see the Armenian community busy with internecine problems to the point of exhaustion. And they have been manipulating the Patriarch’s election process just to create a such a perfect storm.

As the crisis enters its tenth year, we find the seat of the Patriarchate turned into a game of musical chairs, with two potential candidates dancing around it as the local Armenian press in turn dances around them. At this point, the initial stages of controversy are behind us, when different and contradictory proposals were presented to the government, one requesting the election of a new patriarch, and the other the election of a coadjutor Patriarch, to lead alongside the incapacitated incumbent holder of the seat, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan.

The new cycle of crisis was triggered by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, who continues to cling to the title of Vicar General, contrary to his pledge to give up that position upon the election of a locum tenens.

He was a candidate for the latter position, opposing Archbishop Karekin Bekjian. When the Conference of Clergy overwhelmingly voted to elect the latter candidate, Ateshian pulled out a letter from his pocket, signed by the deputy governor of Istanbul, which said that the election process was not authorized by the government, and therefore the election results were null and void.

Ateshian had colluded with the authorities to launch the theatrical brakes.

After a lull, when Archbishop Bekjian began to act in his capacity as locum tenens, Archbishop Ateshian unleashed yet another crisis. Indeed, he took a trip to Armenia and gave a press conference in Yerevan on December 21, issuing an ultimatum to Archbishop Bekjian to resign. He also stated confidently that the Turkish authorities still continue to recognize him as the legitimate vicar general representing the Armenian Patriarchate.

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Answering journalists’ questions, he made other incendiary remarks, including the following:

  • That he was not alone when the controversial letter to President Erdogan was drafted, condemning the German Bundestag’s resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide;
  • Many in the Armenian community have suggested in anger that he is Erdogan’s brother. He said he was proud of that statement;
  • Only a handful of people oppose him in the Turkish-Armenian community;
  • Archbishop Bekjian’s resignation will pave the way for the election of a new patriarch;
  • Garo Paylan, a member of the Turkish Parliament, is an embarrassment to the Armenian community, which deplores his actions.

While most of the papers go to a great length not to alienate either candidate, fearing that they may end up living with the one who outlasts the other, the Armenian section of Agos weekly has taken the radical position of confronting Archbishop Ateshian. Agos editor Pakrad Eudokian, who does not mince his words, countered Ateshian’s statements in an interview: “If Ateshian is claiming popularity in the Armenian community, he is talking about some twenty-odd people. On the contrary, the community is very enthusiastic about Garo Paylan’s activities. Ateshian is on his last legs to justify his stand. He is a non-entity in the community. He is desperate to preserve his title. It does not make any difference in what capacity the authorities recognize him. We are not looking at a government employee to serve the Patriarchate. We are looking for a spiritual leader. As far as Ateshian’s claim is concerned, he is free to offer his services to the government.”

As a side note, on a different level, the issue of the Patriarch’s election became a topic in international relations. When President Erdogan lost face with the Western countries, he launched a popularity contest by visiting less powerful countries such as Sudan and Chad. Making an incomprehensible political decision, the bankrupt Greek government also invited him to Athens so that the Turkish leader would insult the Greeks to no end. Incidentally, he requested the revision of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which had saved Turkey from the noose at that time, but today that revision meant ceding Turkey’s littoral islands, which now belong to Greece, back to Turkey.

Among the insults that Erdogan hurled at the face of Greek leaders was blame for religious intolerance for not letting the Turkish community in Greece elect their Mufti. Garo Paylan took the opportunity to question Erdogan publicly about why he has not allowed the Armenian community to elect its Patriarch for the last 10 years, while blaming Greeks for the same thing.

Returning back to the public debate in Istanbul, we see a release by the Patriarchate which is in essence is a rebuke to Archbishop Ateshian’s statements.

In addition to the statement, Archbishop Bekjian has publicly discounted every single statement at Ateshian’s press conference. Answering a question by news.am, Archbishop Bekjian has qualified Ateshian’s statements as “manufactured fictions.” Nowhere has the government stated that it does not recognize the position of the locum tenens. “We have appealed to the government to fix a date for the election. We have not yet received a response which may arrive tomorrow or in February.”

Both sides seem to be determined. If Ateshian did not have the government’s backing, he would not dare to instigate the combat. On the other hand, Archbishop Bekjian seems confident based on the fact that his election by the clergy conclave does not require the government’s approval. He is also banking on his popularity in the community. He has just decided to resign from his position as Primate of Germany.

The community is in despair. Ten years of confusion and nerve-wracking struggles have confused and exhausted everyone. From all appearances, the Erdogan government would like to impose a pliant member of the clergy on the Patriarchal throne, contrary to the will of the community. As Erdogan consolidates his dictatorial powers in the country, no one is in the mood to challenge him, except a few foolhardy opponents.

It would also be worthwhile to look into the clauses of the Lausanne Treaty if the Turkish government is allowed to micromanage minority religious affairs.

Meanwhile, claims and counterclaims are in public, as the two religious leaders continue their dance of musical chairs in the Patriarchate, to the chagrin of the community, as the world Armenian community follows the developments with deep apprehension.

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