Erdogan Anoints Atesyan


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The US has been warning its Turkish ally to stop the carnage in Afrin, Syria, where Kurds are battling the invaders. The European Union has passed a resolution condemning Turkey’s actions in Syria. Germany has halted the supply of military hardware to Turkey. And yet, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration ignores all warnings and continues to extend its toxic “olive branch” to the Kurds.

When world powers cannot contain the bully, it is not realistic to stop him in his domestic policy. What has been taking place in the Istanbul Armenian community can be defined as a mini-tragedy, compared to Erdogan’s adventures on the world scene.

For almost 10 years, the Istanbul Armenian community has been in turmoil because it has not be able to elect its patriarch. The Erdogan government is trampling on all treaty obligations and Armenian community laws and traditions to keep the community in limbo. It is further pitting the clergy against one another, creating artificial dissension in the community.

Ten years ago, incumbent patriarch Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan developed dementia, losing completely his capacity to perform the functions of his office. All medical reports confirmed that his condition was irreversible. Based on those reports, the Religious Council of the Patriarchate in Istanbul retired the patriarch to pave the way for a new election.

The same Religious Council elected Archbishop Aram Atesyan as vicar general. During his tenure in that position, the latter proved to be a useful political tool in the hands of the Turkish authorities. He wrote a scathing letter to Erdogan blaming the German Bundestag for adopting an Armenian Genocide resolution. He also sent a supportive letter to the marauding Turkish soldiers in Afrin. God only knows what other commitments he has made to the authorities to continue such subservient conduct.

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Besides his political activities, he has been blamed in the community for his corruption. Questions have been raised about his deals on confiscated properties returned to the community. Therefore, he has ingratiated himself to the authorities and some wealthy Armenians benefiting through sweetheart deals.

The community had applied to the authorities to fix a date for the election of a new patriarch. The authorities kept dragging their feet, although they were obligated under the Treaty of Lausanne to allow religious freedom for the Armenian minority to run its communal affairs according to its traditions. The foot-dragging and government restrictions lasted for almost nine years, during which time Archbishop Atesyan’s conduct exasperated the community. The Religious Council once again convened to elect a locum tenens. This time around, two candidates competed, Atesyan and Archbishop Karekin Bekjian. Atesyan was soundly defeated and there was hope in the community that its ordeal was coming to a close.

The two clergymen visited Echmiadzin, where agreement was reached that with the election of the locum tenens, the office of vicar general would be terminated. Atesyan refused to give up, however, claiming all along that he was the only person recognized by the Turkish authorities. Bekjian pressed the council to apply for an election date to find out if the government really backed Atesyan.

On February 5, 2018, all hell broke loose when a letter was received at the patriarchate annulling the election of the locum tenens and the decision of the council to retire the ailing patriarch. The Istanbul governor ordered the Religious Council to rescind its actions, except the election of Atesyan as vicar general, and return to the situation prior October 26, 2016. The governor argues that as long as Mutafyan is alive, conditions are not ripe for an election.

Following that order, Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu invited the leadership of the Armenian community to a lavish banquet at the Ciragan [Chiraghan] Palace to explain why the government had to violate the community’s rights and impose its will by appointing a hated clergyman to the helm of the patriarchate. The minister also distributed expensive pens to the leaders as souvenirs.

The community leaders are in a hostage situation and cannot do anything but bow their heads to the diktat of the government. Only two people have raised objections, attorney Sebuh Aslangil, who has criticized the government’s missive, and the Parish Council Chairman of Gedikpasa Church, Harutyun Sanli, who made derogatory remarks about Atesyan. The minister in turn demonstrated his irritation, which translates no doubt to something like, how is it that these giavours [infidels] can dare to criticize the government’s decision.

After the arrival of the government’s letter, Atesyan issued a communique informing the public that before all those traumatic events, he had flown to Ankara to get his marching orders. He also gave an oblique signal to Archbishop Bekjian when he quoted St. Peter’s Letter to the Romans, in which obedience to the rulers is glorified and punishment administered to trespassers. Bekjian resigned his post and is planning to leave Istanbul soon.

The unspoken argument against Archbishop Bekjian is that as primate of the Armenian Diocese of Germany, he has participated in Armenian Martyrs’ Day commemorations, which in Erdogan’s legal system is an insult to Turkishness. Yet Erdogan has been insulting the entire Turkish-Armenian community, and the world Armenian community for that matter, by imposing a brain-dead clergyman in a vegetative state on the throne of the patriarchate.

Throughout these developments, the domestic Armenian press kept a strict neutrality. But now that Atesyan’s anointment by Erdogan’s administration has been confirmed, the latter has been scrambling to win over Atesyan. A minor incident of protest has revealed this shift. A parishioner named Besse Kabak began singing Der Voghormia [Lord Have Mercy] at the St. Vartanants Church of Gedikpasa, just before Archbishop Atesyan began his sermon. Police intervened and took the protestor to the police station, supposedly out of concern for Atesyan’s safety. Some Armenian papers have been severely critical of the protest. We cannot definitively confirm whether they were concerned about the dignity of the moment or assuring the largess of Atesyan, who controls the purse strings of the patriarchate.

This cavalier treatment has left the majority of the Istanbul Armenian community irate. Of course, there are some detractors. And also there are some wealthy Armenians benefiting from the gravy train, and desecrating the traditions of the Armenian Church.

Despite all these revelations, there are people who are ready to give reverential treatment appropriate for deserving and honorable clergymen to Atesyan during his visits abroad.

Once again, it is Garo Paylan who has taken the bull by the horns, challenging Erdogan’s dictatorial behavior. Indeed, when the latter visited Athens last December, he complained that the Greek government had refused to allow the local Turkish community to elect its mufti. Paylan in response stated to the “sultan,” what nerve you have to complain in Greece that a religious leader is not allowed to be elected when you prevent the Armenian community in your own country from electing its patriarch. Paylan has also tried to place the issue of the patriarchal election on the agenda of the Turkish parliament for debate.

There may be a few foolhardy members of the Istanbul Armenian community who raise their voices in protest. But as a whole, the community stays silent, especially under Erdogan’s martial law, where any dissent is attributed to Feto’s terrorist movement.

Paylan’s voice may be heard beyond Turkey’s borders. But most importantly, Diasporan Armenians can give a cold shoulder when Atesyan travels, if they have any spine left.

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