ARMENIAN COMMUNITY TO HOLD “CO-PATRIARCHY” ELECTION
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Turkey’s Armenian community has officially applied to the Istanbul governorship to begin the election process for a co-patriarch because of the illness of the current patriarch, Mesrop II. Under the Armenian Church’s canon law, Mesrop II will retain the title until his death even after the co-patriarch is elected. The electorate is composed of 50,000 members of Istanbul’s Armenian community.
The Armenian community is preparing for the second “co-patriarchy” election in the history of the Turkish Republic.
Current Patriarch Mesrop II, the 84th to hold the office, is ill and, in case of his death, the co-patriarch will assume the job after 40 days. According to the Armenian Church’s canon law, Mesrop II will keep his title until his death. But because he is suffering from dementia, it is necessary to elect a co-patriarch.
The official application for the elections has been made to the Istanbul governor’s office although the election has raised debate about the function of the patriarch. Some community members believe the patriarch should act as a more symbolic figure.
When Mesrop II became patriarch, Turkey’s Armenian community was largely inward looking. The patriarch drew attention through his intellectual background, foreign education and modern point of view in contrast to many of his predecessors during the republican period.
At the time, Mesrop II’s candidacy aroused much debate both in the local Armenian community and the Turkish press. The community was skeptical of a young cleric becoming patriarch while the Turkish press focused on his political views.
Despite these questions, Mesrop Mutafyan won the election in 1998 and became Mesrop II, Patriarch of Turkey’s Armenians. Besides handling his spiritual duties and fulfilling his community responsibilities, Mesrop II also played an active role in bringing the problems of the Armenian community to Turkey’s agenda.
The year 2007 was a near-breaking point for Mesrop II; he retreated into a deep silence following the assassination of his close friend, Hrant Dink. Mesrop II was the one who suggested founding Agos, a bilingual daily in both Turkish and Armenian that was run by Dink.
Despite his comparatively young age, the patriarch’s medical prognosis is not encouraging. In an attempt to avoid upsetting the community, his health issue was initially reported as a thyroid tumor. Afterward, however, it was announced that the patriarch had dementia at the age of 53.
Some remained suspicious of the diagnosis while others connected the announcement with threats against the Armenian community. Nonetheless, the patriarchate’s clerical council has been handling Mesrop II’s duties for more than a year and has said it will look for a co-patriarch because of the patriarch’s irreversible condition.
Regarding the recent events, the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review spoke to Agos chief editor Etyen Mahçupyan and Seven Nişanyan, an academic and author. Mahçupyan and Nişanyan represent different faces of the Armenian community, both through their ideas and their identities: Mahçupyan is from the Catholic Armenian Church while Nişanyan is a member of the Apostolic Armenian Church.
Nişanyan, who is also a close friend of Mesrop II, said he has closely observed every step of the patriarch’s illness and said he skeptical of the illness: “I have met the patriarch many times, it is too hard for me to believe his illness has natural causes.”
Nişanyan agrees that there is a possibility that Mesrop II may have fallen ill under suspicious circumstances. “This is a very serious matter and it needs to be looked into. There might be people who want Mutafyan to be in this condition. It is inevitable that there would be people who want him to be weak as much as people who would want him to be strong in both Turkish and Armenian communities.”
Mahçupyan spoke about Mesrop II’s intellectual vision and education but said those qualities are insufficient for spiritually leading a community. “At first, Mutafyan gave the impression that he would be a patriarch to act in solidarity with his community but in time, he founded a small clan among those in the community with whom he was close. If he weren’t ill and there were elections again, he would only be able to receive half the votes.”
‘The position of patriarch should be a symbolic one’
Mahçupyan said the Armenian community has rapidly entered a new phase following the Dink assassination, adding that the community’s spiritual and daily affairs should be separated. “The position of patriarch should be a symbolic one,” said Mahçupyan.
“The person who would be patriarch could have a representative authority like the [Turkish] president. He should act like a counseling mechanism whose opinions would be asked when necessary,” Mahçupyan said.
He claimed the patriarchate has become a political tool due to the pressure Turkey exerts on minorities. “Whoever is selected as patriarch will be turned into a political target; it is not possible to prevent that,” Mahçupyan said but emphasized that the community was adapting to the situation.
A patriarch above the standards of others
In contrast to Mahçupyans criticism of Mesrop II, Nişanyan said both Turkey and its Armenian community have been fortunate to have him. “Through his courage and intelligence, Mesrop II went beyond the usual standards Turkey’s Armenian community is used to seeing in church leaders.” He also praised the patriarch for changing the perception that being afraid of one’s own shadow was a commendable trait.
Regarding the patriarch’s religious and secular duties, Nişanyan said: “Of course it is a source of contradiction and problem that the Armenian community, which has a secular and dynamic structure, is being represented by a religious position. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s wise to say we don’t like it and [that we should] eliminate such an influential mechanism of so many years.”
On the prospective new patriarch, Nişanyan said, “Let us hope the community and church members who select the new patriarch will not prefer the old policy of succumbing and silence in the name of peace and accord in the country.”
Patriarch moves to Istanbul
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II transferred the Armenian Pontificate from Bursa to Istanbul after he conquered the city in 1453. He also brought Episkopos Hovagim Golod, leader of the Armenian community in Bursa, to Istanbul and assigned him as patriarch. The patriarch’s building is in Istanbul’s Kumkapı neighborhood today.