Pandora’s Box for Istanbul Armenians

Esayan School

Only a few months after the long delayed election and appointment of Archbishop Sahag Mashalian as the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) in December 2019, the Istanbul Armenian community is again in crisis. The latest turn of events brought forth the unpleasant realities in the leadership of the Istanbul Armenian community, or the lack of it.

It all started on May 15, 2020 by the firing of two long-serving and popular principals of Esayan high school and Esayan middle school by the director of the charitable foundation in charge of Esayan. Esayan School in Taksim, Istanbul was founded in 1895 by two brothers, Mgrditch and Hovhannes Esayan, and is one of 17 Armenian schools left in Turkey, all of them in Istanbul, compared to more than 800 schools in Ottoman Turkey prior to the 1915 Armenian Genocide. This historic and prestigious institution has a primary school for boys and girls, a middle and high school for girls only.  Both my wife and I are graduates of Esayan primary school. Every Armenian school in Istanbul, as well as every Armenian church, is directed and controlled by an Armenian charitable foundation, accountable to the General Directorate of Charitable Foundations of Turkey.

And now, time to review the contents of Pandora’s Box. Esayan School is controlled by the Holy Trinity (Surp Yerortutyun) Charitable Foundation, which also controls the church of the same name. It is one of the wealthiest charitable foundations, with significant real estate assets, including 26 office buildings, numerous apartments and more significantly, the historic Tokatliyan Hotel which at present operates as an office building. The monthly revenue of the charitable foundation is estimated to be over a million dollars, even with the mismanagement and inability to utilize the real potential of the assets. Although the foundation is supposed to have a Board of Directors of at least seven members to be elected every four years, the Turkish government has not allowed elections for the past seven years and due to deaths and resignations, there are only two directors left in control of this vast real estate empire, school and church, accountable to no one. And the senior of these two directors, a lawyer by profession, unilaterally decided two weeks ago that the two dedicated and popular principals of Esayan School had to go.

The dismissal of these two ladies caused a huge uproar and massive protest within the Istanbul Armenian community, as well as among the thousands of Esayan alumni scattered around the world. The Toronto branch of Esayan Alumni, along with other alumni and community leaders, immediately called upon the Istanbul Patriarchate to use its moral and legal authority to intervene and to have the two Holy Trinity Foundation directors reconsider and revoke the dismissal decision, and if they resist, to ask for their resignation. The Patriarch did call upon the two directors along with the two principals to come together and discuss the issues face to face – but only after the government relaxes the COVID virus related restrictions some time in June. It is disappointing that the Patriarchate did not consider making use of technology by inviting both sides to an immediate video conference via Skype or Zoom, as time is of the  essence in this issue. 

This incident also brought to the forefront the issue of elections for the Armenian charitable foundations and why the government has been preventing them for the past seven years. This situation is similar to the Patriarchate elections which were prevented from the time the previous Patriarch was incapacitated 10 years ago until last year, during which an acting Patriarch ran the affairs of the patriarchate, in complete obedience to the government, perhaps not always in the best interests of the Armenian community and the church. The directors of the charitable foundations also run their affairs, individually and unilaterally, unaccountable and perhaps not in the best interests of the Armenian community overall. The wealthy charitable foundations with significant assets are supposed to assist the schools and churches of charitable foundations with limited revenues. But this rarely happens. The directors of most of the wealthy charitable foundations run their empires, hire or help their buddies, buy and sell assets without the advice of professionals, and of course, they like their chairs and are content with the lack of elections. Some foundations have become extremely wealthy in recent years and have received significant compensation, as they have won several lawsuits against the government which had illegally expropriated assets in the past. These assets should be put to use for the good of the entire community, for schools, bursaries, social services and employment, by regularly elected, competent, responsible and accountable members of the community. Unfortunately, this is not the case at present, except for a few directors with good intentions.

The dismissal of the two Esayan principals triggered another scandal. The self-appointed spokesperson for the Istanbul Armenian community, the head of the Holy Saviour (Surp Prgitch) Hospital Foundation, took it upon himself to send a letter to the General Directorate of Charitable Foundations of Turkey, recommending that control of the Esayan School be taken away from the Holy Trinity Armenian Church Foundation and transferred to his Hospital Charitable Foundation – a completely unilateral and outrageous act – without consulting and discussing with anyone. Instead of advocating for the legal and democratic process of election of directors, he further suggested that appropriate people be “appointed” to run the school. Although one should give the benefit of the doubt and hope that this act has good intentions, it is difficult not to speculate about ulterior motives. This person has publicly suggested in the past that if Esayan School is losing money, it should be closed and merged with another high school, Getronagan (Central) School. This person is also on record stating that Getronagan School is run badly and “is raising militants.” Getronagan School is situated at the commercial centre of the city sitting on a very valuable plot of land. Perhaps merging the two schools on the Esayan School plot and selling the Getronagan School property is the end game in this person’s mind. As in many other Armenian communities, schools are now deemed dispensable by charitable organizations if they lose money. Unfortunately this reality is further exacerbated in the Istanbul Armenian community where there is no election and accountability of the charitable foundation directors, no unity and cooperation between the “have” and “have-not” charitable foundations, no moral and legal authority of the Patriarchate, and the result is the loss of historic institutions and valuable individuals.

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Raffi Bedrosyan

Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer, writer and a concert pianist, living in Toronto. Proceeds from his concerts and CDs have been donated to the construction of school, highways, and water and gas distribution projects in Armenia and Karabakh—projects in which he has also participated as a voluntary engineer. Bedrosyan was involved in organizing the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church reconstruction project. His many articles in English, Armenian and Turkish media deal with Turkish-Armenian issues, Islamized hidden Armenians and history of thousands of churches left behind in Turkey. He gave the first piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915, and again during the 2015 Genocide Centenary Commemoration. He is the founder of Project Rebirth, which helps Islamized Armenians return to their original Armenian roots, language and culture. He is the author of the book "Trauma and Resilience: Armenians in Turkey - hidden, not hidden, no longer hidden."
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