uygar gültekin
Dec 16 2017

Turkey’s Armenians prevented from choosing their patriarch

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne guaranteed religious freedoms to all people in Turkey. However, the government continues its long-standing tradition of interfering in the religious affairs of non-Muslim communities.

The Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, which oversees 42 churches, dozens of community centres, manages religious personnel and officiates during religious ceremonies, needs to select a new head of the church.

There have been four patriarchs since Turkey became a republic in 1923. The Istanbul governor’s office involved itself in each selection process, either to change the date or the rules of the election, and constantly reminded the Armenian Church that the secular government was more familiar with the principles of the Church than the Armenian congregation.

There are no legal or required protocols for selecting a patriarch, and he has no legal standing. A new patriarch is selected when the existing one either resigns or dies. The election process is based on long-standing traditions and is made by a Spiritual Council, which is a group of civilians selected from the congregation. The council selects an interim religious leader as the members review candidates and set a date for the selection.

Armenian Spiritual Council, a group of civilians selected from the Armenian congregation in Turkey.
Armenian Spiritual Council, a group of civilians selected from the Armenian congregation in Turkey.

The election process is complicated this time due to the fact that, nominally, the current Patriarch, Mesrob Mutafyan, is still in his position, albeit unable to perform his duties due to suffering from Alzheimer’s disease since 2008. The congregation applied as per tradition to the Istanbul governor’s office and informed officials of their intent to select a new leader. Inexplicably, they were met with a myriad of excuses from government officials, including “the patriarch is not dead,” and “the office is not vacant.”

At the government’s suggestion, a deputy patriarch was selected in the interim, but the congregation was unhappy and voiced its dissent constantly via protests in front of church buildings. Since the government had not approved the selection of a new patriarch, the congregation took the issue to court, but with no result. The patriarchate, unable to ignore the demands of its congregation, decided to proceed with the election.

Karekin Bekçiyan: Interim religious leader to lead the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to elections. He is also a candidate for patriarch.
Karekin Bekçiyan: Interim religious leader to lead the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to elections. He is also a candidate for patriarch.

Within hours of selecting member of the Spiritual Council on March 15, 2017, however, the government sent a memo stating that it did not approve of the election, stalling the process and frustrating the Armenian community once again. Eventually, through informal channels, the government stated that the Armenian community could select its patriarch after Turkey’s April 17 referendum. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on April 24 the patriarch election should be held as soon as possible.

The Spiritual Council set the election for Dec. 10 and applied to the governor’s office for the government’s directive, a document that provides instructions on the election process and candidates eligibility.

Ironically, this directive was prepared in 1961 only to help move along the then stalled election process, not out of any mandatory requirement or law. The Armenian community continued to use the directive in subsequent elections, though, to inform the government of candidates and venues and to ensure that no conflict existed with the official government calendar.

Aram Ateşyan: Acting patriarch for the last 8 years. Vacated the office for the elections to be held. He is also a candidate for patriarch.
Aram Ateşyan: Acting patriarch for the last 8 years. Vacated the office for the elections to be held. He is also a candidate for patriarch.

The governor’s office has taken no initiative to prepare such a document despite the request, however. Rather, officials informed the patriarchate through informal channels that they did not approve of the civilian selection committee.

The Armenian community has tried to negotiate through civil and spiritual representatives, written letters to Erdoğan and the interior minister, and continues to try to negotiate with the governor’s office with no results.

Sebu Aslangil
Sebu Aslangil

The largest Christian community in Turkey cannot pick its own spiritual leader. The government has given no clear explanation as to why but, Sebu Aslangil, spokesman for the Armenian patriarchate, believes that the issue is due to lack of written legislation.

Aslangil, a member of the 1998 selection committee, is well versed in the selection process and working with government officials. He reminds people that the government has never allowed the election to be held on the dates selected by the committee.

Aslangil said that while the government is not violating any law, it appeared reluctant to even informally approve the selection. Thus, the community has been forced to go to court, with its case advanced to the Constitutional Court.

As the Lausanne Treaty is currently under discussion, it might be an opportune time to codify freedom of religion in the country’s constitution. If the Armenian community continues to wait for their religious rights to be approved based on the whims of government officials, they may wait forever.