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“Haratch” 2 & 3 July 2001
His Beatitude Patriarch Mesrob of Istanbul and all Turkey:
“What’s missing is, perhaps, fuller co-operation”
In recent weeks, certain statements and stands of His Beatitude Patriarch Mesrob of Istanbul and all Turkey, concerning contemporary incidents in our church, became the subject of debate in various newspapers, both in Istanbul and the Diaspora. “Tension”, “struggle for authority”, and similar strong words gave the impression of a critical reality to the simple reader. The visit of Patriarch Mesrob to the United States gave us an opportunity to hear the thoughts of a high-ranking clergyman of the Armenian Church on these matters. Despite his very busy schedule, His Beatitude received us on the morning of Friday, June 22 at the offices of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church (Etchmiadzin), and courteously answered to our questions.
Q: Your Beatitude, the purpose of your visit to the United States is to meet with the organisations that contributed towards the renovation of the Patriarchal complex damaged during the 1999 earthquake. What is the status of the renovations and what was the scale of the assistance from the Diaspora?
MESROB II: The building of the technical infrastructure of the Patriarchal complex, the gas and water pipelines, the installation of a central electricity network, the construction of a utilities centre, the cloister of the hieromonks, and the building of a garage and a 110-ton water reservoir have been completed. Considering the technical complications of the historic four-and-a-half storey, wooden building of the Patriarchate and the plans of the Renovation Committee, I think the work will continue for at least another year. Still, there is the issue of furnishings. Most probably, in the spring of 2003, we shall reopen for use the historic building of the Patriarchate, which underwent reconstruction and was reopened for use in 1913 at the time of Patriarch Zaven of blessed memory.
Through the efforts of the Eastern and Western Dioceses of the Armenian Church in America, Istanbul-Armenian organizations in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles, and the Armenian Church of Dallas, $600,000 was raised for renovations. Mr. Kirk Krekorian’s Lincy Foundation, through UAF, doubled the amount, bringing the total to $1.2 million. This also includes around 60,000 French Francs donated by the Armenian community in France. To date, $594,000 has reached Istanbul and has been used for the renovation of the Patriarchate complex and 12 other community properties, all of which were damaged by the earthquake. The rest of the sum will be transferred to Istanbul in the coming months. A Renovation Committee, headed by Mr. Aram Shirin, administers the reconstruction work; the contractors are architect Kevork Ozkaragoz, engineers Sarkis Delgi and Garbis Evyapan. All of them are serving with dedication. The community and I, personally, are satisfied with the quality and pace of the work being carried out.
Q. We receive plenty of information in the media about the concerns of the Armenian community in Istanbul. But, relatively very little is discussed about the impact of Turkey’s economic crisis on the community. How does the country’s predicament affect the community?
MESROB II: First, it should be noted that our people in Istanbul are generous and courageous and maintain all our communal-ecclesiastical institutions in good order. The annual budgets of the institutions are generally balanced through donations received during “agape meals” (siro seghan). Nevertheless, I presume we are going to encounter many difficulties in the course of the year 2001-2002, especially in terms of balancing the budget of our parish schools. Let us not forget that the Turkish lira was devalued by 40 per cent. On the other hand, there is increasing inflation, which has weakened everyone’s purchasing power. People should have enough, so that, after they secure their daily bread, they can earmark donations for religious and cultural activities.
On several occasions in recent months, I have instructed the trustees and boards of our community institutions and church parish councils to seek ways of saving substantially. For centuries, our community has lived and passed through many crises and has come to this day. We shall pass this crisis as well, through prudent, sensible and appropriate financial planning.
Q: Your Beatitude’s trip [to the United States] is taking place when certain incidents have caused upheaval in the Armenian Church, in particular, the events relating to the former prelate of Moscow, Archbishop Tiran Gureghian, which led the Catholicos of All Armenians to unfrock him. Your Beatitude has criticised this decision. Could you explain the basis of your criticism?
MESROB II: God forbid! We have never intented to criticise the Catholicos of All Armenians, nor do we have any such intentions today. His Holiness, as our Supreme Hierarch, is never absent from our daily prayers. Let us not forget that it is the duty of us all to pray for his longevity and for the salvation of his soul. Nevertheless, contemporary times put certain responsibilities on our shoulders as well. Our esteem toward the person and authority of the Catholicos of All Armenians is not diminished, when, occasionally, we feel the need to draw attention to certain issues.
What we are saying is the following: our Church is duty-bound to be a church, in the fullest sense of the word, and to preserve and maintain all the regulations and canons, which relate to the very essence of the church. In fact, the all-time truth is that no individual person, whether catholicos, patriarch, or pope or the bishops, even the pan-Christian Ecumenical Councils, has the right to alter the essential and fundamental teachings and rules of the Faith. For instance, is it possible to change even one iota in the Holy Bible? God’s word is more than clear on this; in religious matters, just as in civilian laws, it is difficult to accept an accusation against a brother without first listening to the testimony of at least two witnesses. This is foremost an issue of principle. The Church is the people. And the representatives of the people are the elected diocesan and parish council members. Should not the opinions of some of these people be taken into consideration when dealing with such important issues? A new bishop is consecrated by at least three members representing the entire College of Bishops. Therefore, when stripping a bishop from his grace, isn’t it necessary to consult with the College of Bishops or at least a few of the most senior bishops?
We have no intention of defending Tiran Srpazan [former primate of Moscow]. But, let’s confess that we expected to hear from the most authoritative person as to what exactly the prelate of the largest diocese in the Armenian Church is accused of. We believe that our expectation not only does not diminish anything from the authority of the Catholicos of All Armenians, but, on the contrary, it elevates that authority.
In any case, the recent incident in Moscow is quite sad. The sides ought not have allowed the creation of such turmoil in one of the largest dioceses of the Armenian Church.
Q: One of the headlines in the June 15th issue of “Agos” [the Istanbul-based Turkish-Armenian bilingual weekly] is quite vivid and concerning: “The tense situation in the Church continues”. What are the causes of this “tense situation”?
MESROB II: Since you felt the need to ask, it means that the headline based on incorrect information and passionate assumptions has apparently served its purpose in clouding minds. You ask about the tense situation. There is no tense situation. Simply put, we are going through a transitional period. Obviously, some inexperience has indeed played a role in this matter. During Soviet Armenia times, our people were cut off from their spiritual traditions. The restoration of all that is not an easy task. Unfortunately, in the last ten years, the Church in Armenia, was not able to re-evaluate herself. Let us not forget, that, in a very short period of time, two catholicoi passed away. Two catholicossal elections were held in Etchmidazin; both of them, regrettably, were subject to intervention by people who had no business in church affairs. Nevertheless, because the overall interests of the Armenian Church were at stake, especially because of the tragic incident of October 27 [in Armenia], we dealt with discretion and felt compelled to live with the situation.
As for the Church, we can state that our spiritual bond with the Holy See of St. Gregory the Illuminator is, personally, very sacred and irreplaceable. However, let us admit that Holy Etchmiadzin, while being the spiritual birthplace of the Armenians, in the present realities of the Diaspora does not represent the totality of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. The Armenian Church is everywhere where there is an Armenian Christian. In order to pray and live a spiritual life one does not have to go to Etchmiadzin, as our Lord Jesus said about Holy Jerusalem when he was conversing with the Samaritan woman in Shechem. Perhaps one could conclude as follows: The Holy Spirit of God, and faith, hope and charity should reign in the Church. The Church cannot be governed with the power of money and physical power. Who knows? Perhaps this is why some people seem to sense a tension in church life.
Q: Recently, the reopening of the renovated Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Iskenderun gave way to various interpretations in the media. Some tend to see it as exacting a position in the more than four-decade-long Etchmiadzin-Antelias dispute, in favour of Antelias; the Holy Oil (Myron) recently blessed in Antelias was used; it was mentioned that the church used to be under the jurisdiction of Antelias; a member of Antelias Brotherhood, Archbishop Vartan Demirjian celebrated the Divine Liturgy. Even a rumour circulated about a “treaty” between Your Beatitude and Catholicos Aram. What is your interpretation?
MESROB II: Interpretation in this case is unnecessary. Everything is more than clear. The Armenian Church is the Armenian people. The pilgrims were satisfied and impressed by the pilgrimages to Kayseri, Iskenderun and Vakifkoy. Everywhere incense and prayers were offered; everything was God-pleasing. Therefore, it is simple that there would be jealous ones, trying to incite trouble. Indeed, it is good that we have a chance to know these people more closely.
Let us, once again, underline with emphasis that the Patriarchate of Istanbul is completely autonomous in its administration and relations: it does not have any political or party relations; it does not, and will not, side with anyone. All four Hierarchical Sees, according to their ranks, are equally ours and have their unique place in the lives of our people. The incumbents of the four Sees also are our chief shepherds, and, in turn, according to their ranks, have their particular role in our national-ecclesiastical life. All the churches within the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Istanbul have been open to the Brotherhoods of Jerusalem, Etchmiadzin and Antelias, and to all priests in Armenia and the Diaspora; our churches will remain open to those who visit us and wish to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in whichever church they choose, as has been the case hitherto.
The Armenian Church is one and belongs to all of us. The Holy Oil (Myron) of the Armenian Church is also one, just as faith, baptism, the Divine Liturgy…. The Myron of Antelias, as [that of] Etchmiadzin, is the one added to the [Myron] blessed by St. Gregory the Illuminator in the fourth century. It is blessed through the descent of the Holy Spirit, with the holy relic of the Illuminator, with the participation of the clergy of the four Hierarchical Sees, and is mixed [with Myron] sent from Etchmiadzin. We repeat: the Armenian Church has one Myron. It is holy regardless which monastery it was blessed in. We have used the Myron of the Cilician See before, and yes, we used it in Iskenderun as well, and we shall use it again along with the Etchmiadzin Myron with love. In the past, we have had clergymen in Istanbul who were consecrated with the Myron of Cilicia and Akhtamar. For instance, by which Myron were [the Patriarchs] Hovakim of Burssa and Nerses Varjabedyan consecrated?
Q: How should such positions be qualified?
A: To make an issue out of this is simply a matter of ignorance. The Holy Myron symbolises the indwelling and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and is not the private product of any See. Our clergymen could use the Holy Myron with clear conscience regardless where it was blessed as long as the canons are observed.
Apparently, the person who turned the Iskenderun church consecration into a public debate has also conveniently ignored the explanation we personally gave: the Myron used was the first blessed this year on the occasion of the 1700th Jubilee. The representatives of the four Hierarchical Sees participated in the blessing [of this Myron] with spiritual joy. Three years ago, indeed, three full years ago, [date of the] ceremony of the Blessing of Myron in Antelias was announced in the 1700th Anniversary [programme] publications of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. This is how we personally participated in the blessing of the Myron, presided by the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. And now we’re being told we shouldn’t use it?
Let us also consider: isn’t the Myron blessed by Catholic bishops every Maundy Thursday holy? Furthermore, should we stop singing the hymns written by St. Nerses the Graceful because he was from Cilicia and not Etchmiadzin? Should we stop reciting the prayers written by St. Gregory of Narek because he was from Akhtamar and not Etchmiadzin? What’s the point?
The talk about a “treaty” [between Istanbul and Antelias] is preposterous. We are all spiritual brothers, we have been consecrated with the same Myron, and have taken the same oath of spiritual service.
Q: On a number of occasions, Your Beatitude’s differences with the Catholicos of All Armenians were public in nature. In its June 11th issue, the “Jamanak” newspaper in Istanbul called it “a struggle of authority” and assigned you a leading role in that “struggle”. How true is this attribution?
MESROB II: We do not wish to comment on the real motives of the editor of “Jamanak”. I regret one thing: there is a deeply worrying new trend. For the first time almost one hundred years after the beginning of the last century, certain forces in the Diaspora are successful in creeping into the life of our Istanbul-Armenian church community and are finding willing agents. The proof is that not only the article was published in “Jamanak”, but also swiftly faxed to certain centres in Armenia and the Diaspora. Now, shouldn’t we ask why such an initiative was taken? In obeisance to whom? And why immediately before our trip to America?
Concerning your main question, there is only one Catholicos of All Armenians. There is no other person who is more pressured under that holy title, which not only requires the respect of everyone, but also lays certain responsibilities on the shoulders of the bearer of that title. On the other hand, the Head of the Church is Christ himself; the bishops are the humble representatives of the apostles. And the first and principal bishop, that is the Chief Bishop, is the Catholicos of All Armenians. Because the catholicoi, the popes, the patriarchs, the bishops of the church are not individual messiahs, there are canons and traditions, which should be willingly abided by each servant of the Church according to his religious rank and order. It is this simple. Finally, why should people always have the same opinions? Democratically oriented people pay deep respect to each other, but could have different opinions. The important thing is the spirit.
Q: In your opinion, how should the differences be sorted out and restore the inner solidarity of the Armenian Church?
MESROB II: My dear brother, you are using such words as if there is a war going on.
Q: There is no war, of course, even though sometimes newspaper articles create such an impression.
There is peace, thank God! What is missing, perhaps, is fuller cooperation. The Mother See should secure that. First of all, Christian, fraternal and sincere love, mutual respect, and, especially, complete trust should be established among the incumbents of the four Hierarchical Sees. The Catholicos of All Armenians, together with the Catholicos of Cilicia, the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Constantinople, only these four together, should go on a retreat for a few days in an appropriate place, to pray and talk about all the issues. This is important because there are obvious tendencies to marginalize the three Hierarchical Sees [other than the Mother see]. This is something that, if not prevented, could be detrimental to the church and her constituents.
Moreover, the principle of conciliarity ought to be restored at all levels in the Church. If bishops and prelates could not freely express their ideas, if they feel that they cannot speak out or that there is a lack of fellowship, then, as Apostle Paul says, the Holy Spirit will be grieved and will not indwell. The Supreme Spiritual Council should be formed anew with members who are elected by secret ballots, lest the Council should lack esteem and spiritual authority. The spiritual mission of the Church should be outlined by the College of Bishops. Commissions should be set up to deal with solutions for urgent issues — expert lay men or women should be invited to serve on such commissions — without, I repeat, leaving the Diaspora in the margins.
Q: What are the current priorities of the Church in your opinion?
MESROB II: Not necessarily in this order, but in my opinion, they are the following: To return holiness, faith and prayer to their place of honour in the Church. “I am holy, you shall be holy as well,” says God. [The Church needs]: a new and united initiative for spiritual enlightenment and teaching; definition and re-evaluation of the real mission of the church; a general and seriously organised conclave of the College of Bishops, which, if agreed should include the brother bishops of all the four Hierarchical Sees; immediate assessment, analysis and evaluation of what is it that moves our people to find spiritual nourishment in sects or other churches; re-assessment of our entire liturgical system; considering the differences in diocesan and monastic lifestyles, a discussion of the issue of celibacy; preparation of formal by-laws for the dioceses under the direct jurisdiction of the Mother See; a decisive return, without exception, to the pan-Christian principle of ‘one diocese, one prelate’ everywhere; development of tangible and substantial programmes for children, youth and women; establishment of serious theological dialogue with the Armenian Catholic and Evangelical churches, as well as other Christian churches; and so forth.
Q: In conclusion, what would Your Beatitude like to say to the readers of “Haratch”?
MESROB II: “Haratch” is among those newspapers in the Diaspora that we follow with interest and personally benefit from its analytical articles greatly. We know well that the general situation of our Church in France and Europe, with few exceptions, is not so encourageing. We exhort all to love our Church; to be concerned about the situation of our Western-Armenian literary, spiritual and cultural schools, to voice their ideas on these issues and not keep silent or be fruitless spectators. It is only through our collective, unified will that expected improvements become possible in our communal and ecclesiastical life. May the blessings of the Lord be always with our beloved people.
Interview conducted by Vartan Mateosian