Turkey’s High Court Rules Blocking Patriarch Election was Religious Freedom Violation

The Istanbul Patriarchate
The Istanbul Patriarchate

The Istanbul Patriarchate

In a detailed ruling published Wednesday, Turkey’s Constitutional Court said that an administrative decision, which effectively blocked attempts to elect an Istanbul Patriarch, was a violation of religious freedom and it impeded the Armenian community from exercising its right to elect a leader of its church.

“For over 10 years the election of a patriarch who carries out an important activity for the Armenian community is constantly delayed contrary to the will of the community. Decisions on matters relating to religion and faith can be made only by the representatives of that particular religion and faith,” said Turkey’s Constitutional Court in its ruling, which was made in May, but the details of which were published Wednesday.

In March 2017, the Istanbul Patriarchate’s Religious Council elected the Primate of the German Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian as Locum Tenens, tasked with organizing a patriarchal election to replace the ailing Archbishop Mesrob Mutafian, who was incapacitated due to dementia and had not been performing his duties at patriarch since 2008. Mutafian was placed under his mother’s care in the fall of 2016.

Bekdjian’s election became a turning point in the saga of who will replace Mutafian, since after his election, Archbishop Aram Ateshian, who had been Locum Tenens since 2008 refused to step down from his post and in a dramatic turn of events, produced a letter from the Istanbul Governor’s office, which declared Bekdjian’s election null and void.

The then head of the Patriarchate Religious Council Bishop Sahak Mashalian accused Ateshian of sabotaging a democratic process to advance the patriarchal election agenda. In May 2017, Ateshian, who has been closely tied to Ankara and was seen as colluding with Turkish officials, bowed to pressure and resigned his post. At the same time, the Patriarchate appealed to Turkey’s Interior Ministry for an explanation about the Istanbul Governor’s decision to dismiss the locum tenens election.

Absent a decision from the Interior Ministry, in 2017, when calling Bekdjian’s election invalid, the Istanbul Governor’s office said that Mutafian was still alive, hence the election process, which was endorsed by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, was declared null and void. The same view was reiterated in February 2018, when the Istanbul governor’s office referred to Ateshian as the acting patriarch, forcing Bekdjian to resign and return to Germany, once again throwing the election process in doubt.

According to Turkish law and patriarchate rules, a new patriarch cannot be elected while his predecessor is still alive, and Mutafian incapacitation complicated matters as it was unprecedented. Patriarchate officials contended that in calling for new elections in 2017—and before—they were adhering to ancient laws and church traditions that enabled the church to annul the vows of religious leaders if they were “absent” for seven years from their duties. This was the premise used by the Patriarchate in 2016 to “retire” Mutafian, following which a court assigned him to his mother’s care.

It is ruling that was released on Wednesday the Constitutional Court said that the Interior Ministry had misinterpreted the regulation, which required an election not only for death or resignation of a patriarch but also for “various reasons,” without specifications. The high court ruled that the fact that Interior Ministry was selective in citing provisions on how a patriarch could be elected also breached the freedom of religion and faith enshrined in the constitution.

While the Constitutional Court ruling appeared to be in favor of the Armenian community and the Patriarchate, the issue has become moot since Mutafian passed away in March. Last week, Bishop Mashalian was elected as Locum Tenens, and will kick off the patriarchal election process, while Ateshian was named the Religious Council chair.

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