Turbulent Journey Ahead after Patriarch’s Death

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The long-expected end finally arrived for Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan on March 8, at St. Purgich Hospital, where he had been in a vegetative state for more than a decade.

To say that he had suffered much in his short life is an understatement. He was an erudite scholar and an independent-minded member of the clergy. He influenced Istanbul Armenian life during his active years and even later, when he had lost contact with the world around him.

Prominent Armenian writer and editor Robert Hadedjian rightfully remarked that he impacted community life more when he lay unconscious than when he was in full command of his mind and body, because so many controversies arose as a result of his incapacitation.

He occupied a twilight zone for the Armenians in Turkey; he was not well enough to tend to his responsibilities as the spiritual leader of the community, nor was he dead to allow the cutting of the Gordian knot and enable the election of a successor.

The community went through hell to figure out a succession plan, and the Turkish government did its best to scuttle any progress in that arena.

Archbishop Mutafyan was elected to the Patriarchal throne in Istanbul on October 14, 1998 and for more than 10 years, he served his community with dedication, developing ecumenical ties with other communities and faiths.

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His charismatic persona attracted many young people to the religion of their ancestors, despite his antiquated moral principles.

His relations with the Turkish state was more challenging. He had to walk on a tightrope to please the authorities, while trying to preserve the interests of his flock. He willingly allowed the Turkish government to use him as a political tool when he lobbied against the passage of Armenian Genocide bills at different countries’ legislatures or when he advocated for Turkey’s admission into the European Union.

That kind of behavior antagonized the world Armenian community, yet it did not buy him any security from the government. He received death threats and his headquarters was bombed.

It is believed that the breaking point of his mental and physical health came at Hrant Dink’s funeral. Although he had chosen a very different path in dealing with the Turkish authorities, Dink’s assassination shook him to the core. Perhaps that was the moment when he experienced the transformation of the priest in Arpiar Arpiarian’s novel, Garmir Jamuts (The Crimson Offering). But from that point on, there was no recovery for him, as his physical and mental health deteriorated inexorably.

On March 8, at exactly 12.15 p.m., when the Patriarch passed away, Vicar General Archbishop Aram Ateshian was visiting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Diyarbakir at Sourp Giragos Armenian Cathdral. That was indeed a symbolic coincidence, since that very church symbolizes the embattled life of Archbishop Mutafyan and his own Armenian people. It was first confiscated by the Turkish government, then given back to the Armenian community, rebuilt by the Armenians and local Kurdish mayor and then destroyed once again when the Erdogan government launched a campaign of extermination against the Kurds.

At that very moment, a pious and kind-hearted Erdogan was there to help the second post-destruction renovation of the church. At that moment, vintage Erdogan was at work, Tweeting his condolences to Mutafyan’s family and to the Armenian citizens of Turkey in the Armenian!

While the Patriarch lay unconscious in his hospital bed, the Armenian community was given the runaround by the Turkish authorities, who successfully divided the community in the wake of the Patriarch’s incapacitation. One group applied to the government to elect a new Patriarch while another proposed the election of a co-adjutor Patriarch to help the incapacitated Patriarch, without pushing him out of office.

After years of delaying tactics, both applications were declined. In the meantime, Archbishop Aram Ateshian managed to have himself “elected” vicar general by a pliant clergy council.

In the process, four candidates emerged and the Turkish government tried to play them against each other, but the parties agreed amongst themselves to elect Archbishop Karekin Bekjian, Primate of Germany, as locum tenens. The Turkish government refused to recognize the community’s choice and instead recognized Ateshian as the head of the Patriarchate, because the latter had served his “brother,” President Erdogan, well; a brazen member of the clergy who has surrounded himself with a coterie of builders, real estate magnates and bankers who have been cannibalizing the properties when the government has been returning to the community. All these parties who have vested interests in this arrangement will not let Ateshian go anywhere. For almost 10 years now, Ateshian has been acting as Patriarch and that is how the Erdogan administration wishes to impress upon the Armenian community that there is no other choice than Ateshian.

In the meantime, the community leader, Bedros Shirinoglu, Erdogan’s messenger to the Armenian community has been whispering to some ears that it is not right to oppose the government’s wishes.

With the elimination of Archbishop Bekjian, who is up there in age, and bitterly frustrated, the remaining candidates are Archbishop Ateshyan, Bishop Sahag Mashalian and Bishop Sebouh Chouldjian, Primate of Gougark, in Armenia. As far as community sympathies are concerned, the most eligible candidate is Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who has an important position in Europe, at the Vatican, and he is not a candidate.

Bishop Chouldjian is too Armenian to be acceptable to the Erdogan administration, which has already made its choice obvious. Despite their misgivings, the two Catholicoi and the local Armenian community have been treating Ateshyan with deference, assuming that he will be forced to occupy the Patriarch’s seat, one way or another.

Erdogan’s authoritarian rule has incarcerated more than 350,000 scholars, journalists, jurists and members of the military, and he has been thumbing his nose at the world. Therefore, to impose a docile clergyman on the Patriarchal throne will not present a challenge to the sultan.

While the journey ahead for the Istanbul Armenians will be turbulent, let the Patriarch rest in peace.

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