BY RAFFI BEDROSYAN
Ever since the last Armenian Patriarch, Mesrob Mutafyan, fell ill with dementia in 2008, the seat of the Istanbul Patriarchate has been vacant. Archbishop Aram Atesyan, who was appointed as Acting Patriarch, devised several arrangements with the help of the Turkish government to delay the election of a new Patriarch. He has remained in power for the last 11 years. With Patriarch Mutafyan’s passing away in March, there are now no legal, or illegal, loopholes left to avoid the Patriarchal election.The Turkish government finally relented to have the Patriarchal election take place in December, but also presented a further obstacle against a fair and democratic election process. It imposed a condition that “the only eligible candidates would have to be clergy in the employ of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate,” thereby eliminating at least ten other potential candidates who could have been eligible – based on the historically legitimate condition of eligibility applied in previous Patriarchal elections. It should be noted that two of the previously elected Istanbul Patriarchs were clergymen born in Turkey, but served the Armenian Church outside of Turkey and not in the Istanbul Patriarchate.
The Electoral Commission of Istanbul Armenians, selected from Istanbul Armenian community leaders, charitable foundation directors and some clergy, assembled to decide whether to object to the Turkish government about the imposed eligibility condition. However, after a very short debate and a few resignations of objectors, the commission conveniently decided to comply with the government condition and proceed with the election. Therefore, instead of having a healthy debate and new approaches on how to run the Patriarchate with worthy candidates from inside and outside Istanbul, the December election will now be between two Istanbul Armenian clergymen, Archbishop Atesyan, the Acting Patriarch until recently, and Archbisop Mashalyan, newly elected as the caretaker clergyman to oversee the election.
Based on their past performances, both men appear to be completely subservient to the Turkish government, convinced that the best and only way to conduct the Patriarchate affairs is to act exactly as the state demands, without ever rocking the boat. This may perhaps be acceptable as a tactic of survival, but what is even less acceptable is how these candidates act as subservient to the Istanbul Armenian charitable foundation leaders. The Patriarchate has the right to exert moral authority over the charitable foundations. Instead, the charitable foundation leaders, who are supposed to run the affairs of the Armenian churches, schools, and hospitals on behalf of the Armenian community, conduct themselves as the head of individual empires, not accountable to anyone. Some charitable foundations are quite wealthy as they have substantial revenues and income from significant real estate holdings, while others are only reliant on individual donations or fundraising dinners. The “haves” are supposed to help the “have-nots,” but this can only be done by having a strong and influential Patriarch, arbitrating among the charitable foundations and distributing the wealth for the common good of the entire community. But, at present, the directors of the wealthy foundations keep the revenues to themselves and spend it as they see it fit. Although they are supposed to be elected, the Turkish government has not allowed elections for Armenian charitable foundations for many years, and these individuals rule their empires, with no accountability. The director of Holy Trinity Church (Surp Yerrortutyun), which oversees numerous other churches and schools in Pera, wasted the potential of the historic Tokatliyan Hotel – which his foundations owns – for years, renting it cheaply to his friends and associates. The director of the Holy Saviour Hospital (Surp Prgitch) sees himself as the spokesperson of the entire Armenian community and makes irresponsible statements to the Turkish media, as he did recently, saying that students at highly prestigious Armenian Getronagan School are being raised as “militants.”
One critical issue that the Patriarchate needs to address, but has not done until now, is the reality of the hidden Armenians, living in different regions of Turkey outside of Istanbul. The Islamized hidden Armenians have started to return to their Armenian roots in recent years. Against all odds, risks and consequences, they seek an Armenian identity. At present, the Armenian Patriarchate, or rather the Acting Patriarch, does not recognize them as Armenians until they get baptized and become Christian. But the conditions for baptism are so onerous that few hidden Armenians choose to go through with the process. Moreover, the hidden Armenians are also prevented from being baptized elsewhere in Armenia or Europe, as we experienced during Project Rebirth trips to Armenia with several groups of hidden Armenians. It is my humble opinion that any hidden Armenian who wishes to return to Armenian roots, language, and culture, has the right to do so, and should not be prevented from doing so. Religion should be considered as a personal choice that comes later.
Another critical issue that the Patriarchate needs to address, but is ignored at present, is the status of the hundreds of abandoned Armenian churches in Turkey, outside Istanbul. There were more than 4,000 churches and schools left behind in Turkey after the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Although most of them have been destroyed, there are still hundreds remaining intact, either used by the Turkish state, organizations or individuals for other purposes. It is Patriarchate’s right, indeed its duty, to take steps toward the return of these properties to the rightful owner, the Patriarchate. There are also six active Armenian churches still open in the rest of Turkey outside Istanbul, in Kayseri, Iskenderun, Hatay, Vakiflikoy, and the largest of them all, in Diyarbakir – the Surp Giragos Church. The Patriarchate should appoint part-time or full-time clergy to these churches, even though there may not be a visible Christian Armenian community at present. These churches, and potentially new others, would act as magnets for the hidden Armenians to have the courage to come out, congregate, and support one another.
The two Patriarchal candidates have not uttered a word about any of these critical issues. In fact, they have praised themselves about what they have done in the past, but have not shared any of their future plans and programs, if elected. I think every Istanbul Armenian voter should think about these issues and demand an answer as to how the candidates will deal with them. The Istanbul Patriarchate is not simply a church administrative center appointing clergymen or running a few churches for a community of 60,000 Armenians. There is immense responsibility and duty, not only limited to Istanbul but covering the entire country, to deal with remaining historic assets and emerging realities of hidden Armenians. I would therefore, urge the Istanbul Armenian voters to ask the following questions to the Patriarchal candidates:
- What are your plans to take charge of the Istanbul Armenian charitable foundations, and fairly arbitrate among them for the benefit of the entire Armenian community?
- What are your plans to accommodate and welcome the hidden Armenians who wish to join the Armenian community and return to their Armenian roots, including those who wish to convert to Christianity, and those who do not wish to convert to Christianity?
- What are your plans to start discussions with the Turkish government, organizations, or individuals toward the return of Armenian churches and schools previously owned by the Patriarchate?
- What are your plans to appoint clergymen outside Istanbul, in areas where there are emerging hidden Armenian communities such as Diyarbakir?
If the voters are not aware or interested in these issues, the candidates will not be interested in these issues, either. Instead of serving the voters and the Armenian community at large, they will serve their “masters” – the wealthy directors of the charitable foundations. Not much will change and the Istanbul Armenian community will continue to be treated as “flock,” not only in the religious sense but also in the literal sense as “sheep.”