A win for Turkey’s Armenians who stood their ground on the Patriarchate

This past March, Turkey’s Armenian community lost their Patriarch Mesrop Mutafyan, who had been in a vegetative state due to health problems since 2008. Strangely enough, the death of the beloved Archbishop Mutafyan symbolised a liberation for both the religious leader, who had spent years in an unconscious state, and for the religious community as a whole.

Medical experts officially deemed Mutafyan unable to fulfill his duties a decade ago. Though the Armenian community has wanted to elect a new patriarch, one has still not been elected thanks to the intervention of Turkey's Justice and Development Pary (AKP) government. 

Instead, the AKP created the new office of “Deputy Patriarch” and installed Archbishop Aram Ateşyan to the position in 2010. This was no different in essence to the centrally appointed administrations that the government has relied on to govern Kurdish-majority municipalities in the southeast after dismissing the elected administrations in the period since the 2014 local elections

Since the Ottoman Empire, matters of the Patriarchate have been governed by the 1863 Statute, which is considered the Armenian Constitution. But the AKP has brought its own new methods into the inner workings of the Patriarchate.

In its refusal to allow elections, the government has enjoyed the support of Ateşyan, a figure concerned only with his personal gain, as well as a handful of leading Armenians who see the government as a cash cow.

With the Patriarch’s death, the absurd office of “Deputy Patriarch” has disappeared, and steps have been taken for a new election. And, there has been another interesting development: the Constitutional Court ruled that the government's refusal to allow elections for a new patriarch for the past ten years was a rights violation.

Last week, the court revealed the reasoning behind its decision, which was originally announced in May. 

“The court has found that elections for the patriarch, who bears significant authority and responsibility for the Armenian community, have been conducted in a way that is not in line with the will of Armenian society for over ten years,” the court's statement said.

“As the Constitutional Court has previously expressed, decisions concerning a religion or belief system can only be made by followers of that religion or belief system,” it went on to say.

In short, the court decided that the right to religious freedom, enshrined in the 24th article of Turkey's constitution, had been violated.

Although this decision came ten years late, it is still encouraging in many respects. For starters, the government’s wrongdoing has been noted, and the Armenian community vindicated in its struggle to choose its own patriarch.

The court reiterated that elections for the office of the patriarch were to be conducted in accordance with the 1863 Statute, and that the patriarchs must be chosen independently of the government. The court insisted that to do otherwise would be a violation of rights.

In other words, all of the demands of the Armenian community were legally valid, and the AKP and Ateşyan’s scheming can continue no longer.

Whether the court’s decision is binding, and the extent to which the AKP will heed this ruling, are both debatable. But as someone who follows Turkish politics and is a citizen of Turkey, I cannot help but question why the Constitutional Court chose to announce this decision now.

Why now? It would be naive not to ask this question! 

It is clear that Ateşyan, who had enjoyed the AKP’s firm support for 10 years, has become ineffective in the eyes of the AKP.

For 10 years, the government pushed Ateşyan forward, creating new positions for him and eliminating all other potential candidates for the patriarchy. Whenever Ateşyan found himself in a bind, he would make a few phone calls, and the AKP would solve his problems. But this has clearly not worked out as the AKP had hoped.

The Armenian community refused to accept Ateşyan. Despite the deputy patriarch’s insistence that the government supported him, the Armenian community paid him no heed. Intimate photographs with the interior minister and conversations with President Erdoğan did nothing to increase his support.

Both Ateşyan and the AKP went so far over-the-top that the deputy patriarch was stamped indelibly as a government man, not only by the local Armenian community, but also by the diaspora and the state of Armenia. Rather than rejecting the title, he instead boasted that he knew how to get work done in Turkey. All he managed to do was sink to ever lower depths.

The AKP rightfully decided to jettison the man after he was rejected by all sides, and flushed its ten-year investment down the drain. It was at this point that Mutafyan passed away, and the Constitutional Court announced its ruling.

Unfortunately, the Armenian community will never get those ten stolen years back. After ten senseless, directionless, visionless years, the youth especially are fed up with a deputy patriarch who did not care for Armenians, their religion or their problems.

The community has drifted away from its Patriarchate, which is the only guarantor of its belonging, culture, and language in Turkey. We must hope that the coming years will be productive in healing these wounds. The plan is for a new Patriarch to be chosen in the next two months. Let us hope it will be a democratic election. 

In all of these developments, there is one detail that above all should be reiterated and celebrated: the Armenian community’s ten-year long struggle and its refusal to surrender!

The firm stance of civil and religious leaders and Armenian youths who spoke their mind and were not afraid to oppose the government was very important in reaching this point. The critical stance of Turkey's Armenian newspaper AGOS, which persisted in informing the public, asking questions no one else would, and insisting on dialogue between the Patriarchate and civil society, was crucial.

In a previous piece on whether Armenians would be able to elect a new patriarch, I wrote, “It is misguided to evaluate the Armenian Patriarch election outside of the context of the atmosphere in Turkey. When the majority in the country is afraid to speak up, it is unjust to expect a minority treading on eggshells to make enough noise to bring about change.”

I am still of this opinion. However, the recent victory of the opposition in the Istanbul mayoral elections once again demonstrated the importance of resisting no matter what, and not giving up.

Bravery is contagious. The struggle of minority communities is as important as the struggle of the majority, and it is wrong to think of Armenian society as independent of the overall society it inhabits. Regardless of ethnic or religious identity, overall society maintains a balance, a harmony, in which good as well as bad habits are contagious.

Perhaps what everyone is now doing, in the words of poet Turgut Uyar, is "drowning hopelessness like a sesame seed - and resisting – in the name of always resisting and continuing onwards.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.