The Istanbul Armenian Community’s Patriarch Dilemma

A major controversy has been brewing for several years among members of the Armenian community of Istanbul over plans to elect a new Patriarch.

The controversy has long, historic roots—and, more recently, many complications which started with the terminal illness of Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan, who is unable to carry out his duties due to dementia.

Then-acting Patriarch Ateshian arrives in Sourp Giragos church in Diyarbakir, in Oct. 2012, to preside over its reconsecration. (Photo: Khatchig Mouradian/The Armenian Weekly)

When some members of the Istanbul Armenian community tried to elect a new Patriarch to replace the incapacitated Mesrob Patriarch, the Turkish government officially announced that as long as the existing Patriarch is alive, no new Patriarch can be elected. Even the request to elect a Coadjutor Patriarch was rejected by the Governor of Istanbul.

The Turkish government used the excuse that the Armenian community’s constitution of 1863 contained no such office as Coadjutor Patriarch. The problem was that the Turkish government had declared the constitution to be invalid several decades earlier. If the government was basing its decision on a defunct constitution, it meant that it was recognizing its validity. If the constitution is valid, then the community has the right to elect delegates who in turn could elect a new Patriarch.

Regrettably, the Armenian community did not think of bringing this contradiction to the attention of the Turkish government.

Mesrob Patriarch faced opposition from the Turkish government prior to his election in 1998. Eventually, he went to Ankara and “made a deal” with Turkish officials behind closed doors, which allowed him to be elected Patriarch. Soon after, he started promoting various Turkish causes, including visiting Western Europe to advocate for Turkey’s membership in the European Union. He also made several visits to the United States to make public appearances at the Turkish government’s request.

Earlier this year, some members of the Istanbul Armenian community decided to make another attempt to elect a new Patriarch motivated by their dissatisfaction with Archbishop Aram Ateshian, Vicar General (“pokhanort”) of the Patriarchate, and their desire to have a new, full-fledged Patriarch. The problem was Archbishop Ateshian would not resign from his post, blocking the door for new elections. After much pressure from Armenians locally and around the world, particularly by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All-Armenians, an agreement was reached for the Archbishop to resign and for the Primate of the Armenian Church in Germany, Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian to be elected as Locum Tenens (“deghabah”) to organize new Patriarchal elections.

Soon after this agreement, a group of prominent Istanbul Armenians formed a committee to initiate the Patriarchal elections, even though everyone in the community knew that the Turkish government was against such an election. As a matter of fact, while Archbishop Bekdjian was being elected Locum Tenens, Archbishop Ateshian received a letter from the Governor of Istanbul informing him that the Turkish government does not recognize Archbishop Bekdjian’s election and continued to consider Archbishop Ateshian as the legitimate Vicar General.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Ateshian presented the letter to the Initiating Committee only after they had elected Archbishop Bekdjian to his post. This episode increased the antagonism of those opposing Ateshian and continued their support for Bekdjian.

To resolve this dilemma, Archbishop Bekdjian wrote a letter to the Governor of Istanbul asking for a meeting. After waiting for 60 days for a reply, Archbishop Bekdjian flew to Germany to meet with Catholicos Karekin II during the latter’s visit there.

While Archbishop Bekdjian was out of Turkey, the Governor of Istanbul invited Archbishop Ateshian, Bishop Sahag Mashalian, and the head of the Initiating Committee to a meeting. The timing was no coincidence. It was clear that the Governor did not want to meet with Archbishop Bekdjian, someone whose election he did not recognize.

The argument in the local Armenian community intensified between those who considered themselves to be realistic, acknowledging the Turkish government’s role in the Patriarchal elections, and those who rejected any interference by the Turkish government. Archbishop Ateshian’s supporters pointed out the uselessness of going against the wishes of the powerful Turkish government that had jailed thousands of opposition members and even defied major countries such as Germany and the United States. Furthermore, Archbishop Ateshian’s proponents indicated that if Catholicos Karekin II could intervene in the elections of the Istanbul Patriarchate, an autonomous branch of the Armenian Church, then it would be understandable, no matter how undesirable, that the President of Turkey would have the right to interfere in elections held in his own country.

To make matters worse, before Archbishop Bekdjian returned from Germany, five members of the Initiating Committee had resigned after meeting with the Governor of Istanbul. The rest of the committee members wanted to wait until Archbishop Bekdjian’s return before making a decision.

Following Bekdjian’s arrival in Istanbul, and after consulting with the Initiating Committee, he announced that he would write a letter to the Turkish Minister of Interior, asking for a one-on-one meeting. Defying the Istanbul Governor’s clear instructions, Archbishop Bekdjian continued to remain in his post.

Archbishop Bekdjian’s intent to meet privately with the Minister of Interior is fraught with pitfalls. As was the case with Patriarch Mesrob, Archbishop Bekdjian could make a private deal with the Minister, pledging to carry out the Turkish Government’s instructions henceforth. During his tenure as Primate of Germany, Archbishop Bekdjian had spoken out periodically about the Armenian Genocide.

Archbishop Bekdjian’s other option would be to resign from his post, opening the door for Archbishop Ateshian to be elected Patriarch, which would be against the wishes of the majority of the local Armenian community, but would comply with the preference of the Turkish government.


Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

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