On Feb. 21, more than 70 academics, writers and artists from Turkey’s Armenian community published a petition in the bilingual weekly newspaper Agos.
“We hope and insist that an end is put to the administration of the patriarchal seat by a vicar and that the vacant seat be bestowed to a legitimate and dignified person through a public vote, in keeping with our traditions and the rights of our citizens,” the petition said.
“We appeal to all Armenians and to community institutions in Turkey to use all the means at their disposal to protest and reject this situation,” it added.
On Feb. 9 Turkish authorities abruptly intervened in the affairs of the Armenian community in Turkey. The interior minister went to Istanbul where a meeting of some community leaders had been convened.
After the meeting, the Ecclesial Council of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople reinstated Archbishop Aram Atesyan in his function as vicar general.
This was despite the fact that a year previously the Ecclesial Assembly — the Armenian Church’s equivalent of a synod — had elected Archbishop Karékine Békdjian as locum tenens(one who holds the place)of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople by a large majority, and tasked him with organising an election to replace the nominal patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan, who has been seriously ill for the past 10 years.
The petition’s signatories reminded members of the Assembly “of their responsibilities in the face of public opinion,” and called on them to “respect their oath.” They also urged community leaders to “put an end to their passivity” and to “start taking the initiative.”
“Peace will not be restored to our community until the patriarchal election is held in a climate of justice and respect for the law. Silence born of resignation and submission is not synonymous with peace, but oppression,” they warned.
Turkey’s interference in the church’s electoral process continues to elicit internal friction.
Garo Paylan, an outspoken Armenian legislator, has in interviews given to Turkish and Armenian media, criticised Turkish authorities and church leaders alike, especially Archbishop Atesyan, who ignited the whole affair when he travelled to Ankara to complain about being ejected by his church.
“When you get power from the government, you become a sort of hostage,” Paylan, who is very popular among young Armenian, said of Archbishop Atesyan in an interview published on Feb. 14 by the Yerevan-based website TRT.am
Paylan has described the current vicar general as the “Turkish government’s sheep,” and the “hand-puppet not only of the government but also of the [ministries of] defence, security, and justice.”
He said the Armenian community “needs the patriarchate to be made autonomous.”
“We should be better organised, because this situation could easily divide the community,” he said.
Turkey’s small Armenian community is already split over the affair and over what steps to take next.
Some older members of the community still remember the persecutions of the past and “dread engaging in a tussle with the government,” explained
Philippe Sukiasyan, a deacon and historian.
But a growing section of more “emancipated” Armenian Christians, the so-called Generation Dink – named after Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist and Agos editor who was assassinated by a nationalist in 2007 – want to claim “their full citizenship.”
“[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is playing the Ottoman sultan blithely intervening in the affairs of ‘minorities.’ But young Armenians no longer want to be seen as ‘subjects of the Ottoman empire,” added Sukiasyan.
Those who watched the Feb. 20 session of the Supreme Spiritual Council – the church’s highest entity – may have wondered whether the 7th canon of the 1651 Council of Jerusalem would be invoked.
This stipulates: “If a bishop tries to become primate of a diocese, not by the will of the Catholicos [the patriarch] but by an act of corruption, or by constraint exerted by outsiders, he will be deprived of his religious rank.”
In the end, said Sukiasyan, a “very neutral” communique was published. It asked the Turkish government to authorise “free and transparent” elections, but also for “errors, misunderstandings and a certain haste” to be recognized within the Armenian church. It appealed to both sides to exercise restraint.