ANKARA: Ahead of the election of the 85th patriarch of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey on Dec. 11, the Turkish Ministry of Interior set the condition that candidates must be based in Turkey, sparking criticisms by many, seeing it as an interference in the spiritual functioning of the patriarchate.
The legal condition decreased the number of candidates from 12 to just two who meet the requirement. The election will therefore be between two Istanbul-based Armenian clergymen, Aram Atesyan and Sahak Mashalyan.
Historically the legitimate condition of eligibility applied in previous patriarchal elections was being born into an Armenian family from Turkey.
The country’s Armenian community has about 70,000 members. About 1,000 voters out of 15,000 eligible voters boycotted the first round of elections, held between Dec. 7-8, calling into question the legitimacy of the process.
The second round of the elections will be held on Dec. 11 when the elected delegates will choose the next patriarch. Mashalyan is considered the favorite.
“This restriction may lead to the end of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate, because we may find no candidate in the next elections,” Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of the Turkish Parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said. Paylan considered the attempt an intervention into the Armenian community’s own religious freedoms.
“It is totally unjust. Religion requires conscience and justice,” he said. During previous patriarch elections in Turkey, many Armenian clerics from around the world could have attended.
Sebuh Çulciyan, who was a close friend of assassinated Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and now lives in Armenia, was also a candidate for the election. But, due to the new regulations, he couldn’t run.
Former Patriarch Mesrop Mutafyan, who was allegedly elected in 2008 against the wishes of the Turkish government and became weakened under much pressure, had been suffering from dementia, pushing the government to replace him with Ateshian in 2010 as General Vicar of the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey.
Armenian Apostolic Church tradition requires that a patriarch must either die or resign from his position before his successor is elected.
Ateshian has been criticized by many people in the Armenian community as being too open to Turkish government propaganda.
In 2017, Karekin Bekchiyan, another Armenian cleric, was elected governor of the patriarchate. While the Ministry of Interior did not respond to a petition for the elections coming from the Armenian community that were sent in August 2017, the local authorities of Istanbul, where the patriarchate is based, denounced the legal proceedings regarding the election of Bekchiyan and declared his decisions invalid.
Rober Koptas, an Armenian publisher in Istanbul, told Arab News that the feeling of victimhood among the Armenian community in Turkey was causing alienation from the church.
The inability to elect a patriarch for almost a decade, and the dependency on political will, had, he said, seriously harmed Turkey’s Armenian community.
Turkey’s historical relations with Armenia have been generally hostile, while the US House of Representatives recently took a landmark decision to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, angering decision-makers in Ankara.