Bishop Mashalian

Bishop Sahak Mashalian Discusses Upcoming Patriarchal Election in Istanbul, Opens Aghtamar Exhibit in New York


NEW YORK — It was a unique and unusual event at a top gallery in New York’s art district. Bishop Sahak Mashalian, Locum Tenens of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, and one of two candidates for the position of Patriarch, was in New York with a delegation of Armenian church and community leaders from Istanbul to open the photographic exhibition of the iconic Aghtamar (Holy Cross) Church on the picturesque shores of Lake Van.

The trip was organized and hosted by the Turkish Presidency which has embarked on a program to exhibit worldwide some of the ancient Christian churches in Anatolia.

Aghtamar was chosen as the first. There is no doubt that Turkey is sharing these treasures in order to present a more positive view of itself internationally, and to boost its tourism industry.

Though the cross has remained atop the church, it is a museum all year long except for one day when the Holy Badarak can be celebrated. In September 2019, Bishop Mashalian celebrated the Divine Liturgy. The church’s architectural beauty, scenic landscape and historic importance have made it a top touristic attraction for the thousands who visit it annually.

The opening reception on November 5 was attended by more than 100 invited guests (including Armenians, Greeks and Turks) who were also treated to pianist Sahan Arzruni playing several selections, including Alan Hovhanness’ masterpiece Aghtamar.

In his address in English at the reception, Mashalian explained that after the exhibition’s initial presentation in Istanbul a few months ago, he was convinced that this extraordinary photography had to be seen by a much larger audience. He then convinced the Turkish government to bring it to New York. The exhibition will next travel to London.

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“In this world capital city of New York, the exhibit represents the magnificent past of Anatolia, and the success of the great civilization of the Armenian nation,” Mashalian with pride.

He paid tribute to the late great Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan who was deeply involved in the church’s restoration work along with the Armenian architect Zakarya Mildanoglu.

“The Holy Cross Church has already become a landmark in Turkey for faith and cultural tourism. And for Armenians, its preservation reminds them of their glorious past, becoming a point of communication with their ancestors.”

From the view of the Turkish state, he said, the church’s “restoration and promulgation with its Armenian origin and identity must be considered as a move of reconciliation and an invitation of friendship to the Armenian people. It is an attempt to overcome the difficulties of communication and to prepare a place of appointment for the Turkish and Armenian peoples on a cultural basis.”

It is true, he said “that Aghtamar has witnessed many tragic events and crimes between these two nations, but Aghtamar can be a place of reconciliation,” he concluded to a thunderous ovation.

Mashalian’s trip had begun on Sunday morning November 3, when he attended the Holy Badarak at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York, where he greeted the church attendees and briefly spoke about the “compass of God’s family which is not limited by blood or heritage, but is thrown open to all who receive and enact the word of God.”

During an exclusive interview in both Armenian and English, Mashalian focused on the upcoming December 11 patriarchal election in Istanbul.

When asked how his life has changed since becoming Locum Tenens, he replied, “As Locum Tenens, one has to act responsibly like a Patriarch, except for the title.

“Therefore, on July 4, when I was elected as Locum Tenens, I had the functions of preparing the election process, as well as fulfilling the role of Patriarch as top of the hierarchy with the churches, the government, the community leaders, the priests, the guests.” The last election for Patriarch was 21 years ago.

The number of candidates for the post has steadily declined. For example, there were 16 in 1961, 12 in 1990, and 10 in 1998. “Turkey decided two months ago to reinstate an 1893 Armenian constitution in Turkey that said anyone who is to be elected must be part of (serve in) the Patriarchate of Istanbul,” adding that Turkey obviously did not want some other candidates.

After the illness of Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan, the other current candidate now for Patriarch is Archbishop Aram Ateshian who became the head of the Religious Council.

“Though Ateshian wanted to be the co-Patriarch in 2010, the government did not want a new election because there would have been many candidates, and the government favored Ateshian, even though his reputation was low in Armenia and the Diaspora.”

Election Process

Bishop Mashalian explained the election process will take place on two levels. The people choose delegates based on each church’s population. The delegates include 17 clerical (priest) delegates to be selected on December 7, and 103 civil (lay) delegates to be chosen on December 8.

On December 11, these 120 delegates will come together in the Cathedral of Holy Asdvadzadzin and elect the Patriarch, as well as nine members of the Religious Council.

He noted that in Turkey with an Armenian population of about 60,000, there are 38 Armenian churches, 33 in Istanbul, and five in Anatolia. “Churches are ruled by the trustees. Every church has its own income, and church membership among the people is without charge.”

In the Armenian community, there are also two Armenian hospitals, and 17 all day schools with 3,100 students. There is also an active Armenian media, including the daily TV, and newspapers Agos, Looys, Paros, Jamanak, and Marmara.

Mashalian promises to “accomplish the unity of the people under the family of the Patriarch.” This includes “creating laws and regulations which define the place the Armenian church and community should have in Turkey.

“We don’t have laws and regulations because there were no centralized institutions. We only had advising committees,” he added.

Before 1960, there was a centralized committee, and then it evolved into a spiritual institution, and the Patriarchs had only spiritual authority, he revealed.

“As with all non-Muslim religious minority institutions in Turkey, the Patriarchates are not recognized as a legal entity. This affects its ability to petition the Turkish government for adequate redress. It also affects its ability to press its claims which are objectively recognized as legitimate. Therefore, the Patriarch as an individual must bear the burden of relying on his personal legal status to represent the Patriarchate,” he explained.

And if he is elected Patriarch in December? “A patriarch must be a ‘father’ of his family first. Holding a strong symbol of unity for the church and community, he will have a moral power to solve many accumulated problems piled up for the last 12 years. The greatest challenge for the new patriarch will be to effect and influence the secular sphere with this non-existent secular authority through his spiritual authority. Legally, he has been left to be an ‘advising father on worldly matters rather than an executive authority.

“Once the Armenian Patriarch is elected, there will be an effort to make it legal through the government,” he stated, adding that the Turkish government has promised in the future to assist the non-Muslim communities to discuss and solve their problems.

“I hope the new Patriarch will solve these issues,” he noted.

Family Prayers

Born in 1962, in Istanbul, the young Shaheen (the Bishop’s baptismal name meaning, “bird of prey”) loved nature, especially the sea. With no Armenian schools in the Istanbul district where he lived with his Armenian parents, he read the Bible in Turkish. He attended the Armenian church since age 5, and his paternal grandmother prayed he would become a vartabed (celibate priest).

He studied electrical engineering and philosophy at a Turkish university, and theology at universities in London and Dublin. At age 20, he met the future Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan who had started a youth movement. He attended his lectures, and learned Armenian at age 20. After serving for six months in the army, he decided to become a celibate priest. He was elevated to the rank of Bishop in 1999, at age 37.

“Celibacy gave me education, mobility and an ability to concentrate more on spirituality.” The deeply religious cleric considers the best elements of his work that of “preaching, teaching, advising, listening organizing, and helping charities. “When I preach the word of God I feel refreshed,” he said quietly.

“It is through the will of God that I am in the Armenian Church. It gives me a sense of family. It’s my nation,” he commented with his typical humility and dedication. “The Armenian Church is the backbone of our nation’s survival. For Armenians, it is the true sense of God.”



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