ISTANBUL (Hurriyet, Zaman)—Turkey’s Armenian community has officially applied to the Istanbul governorship to begin the election process for a co-patriarch because of the poor health condition of Archbishop Mesrob Moutafyan, the Istanbul Patriarch.
Under the Armenian Church’s canon law, Mutafyan 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.
Current Patriarch Mutafyan, 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, Mutafyan 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.
In light of these developments, two religious leaders have announced their candidacy, reported Today’s Zaman.
One candidate is Bishop Sebouh Chuljyan, the primate of the Gougark diocese in Armenia. Another is the Primate of the German Diocese, Bishop Karekin Bekjyan. Both are qualified since they were born in Turkey as required and have impressive religious qualifications. Among six candidates, the two replied positively to the Armenian patriarchate’s letter asking whether or not they would put themselves forward as candidates.
Bishop Karekin is expected to meet the Armenian community in stanbul soon as he was scheduled to travel to Turkey following Armenian Christmas.
At the time, Mutafyan’s candidacy caused 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, Mutafyan won the election in 1998 and became Mesrob II, Patriarch of Turkey’s Armenians. Besides handling his spiritual duties and fulfilling his community responsibilities, Mesrob 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, the editor of Agos bi-lingual newspaper, which Mutafyan is said to have founded.
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.
To address these developments, the Hurriyet spoke to Agos chief editor Etienne Mahchubian and Seven Nishanian, an academic and author. Mahchubian and Nishanian represent different facets of the Armenian community: Mahchubian is from the Catholic Armenian Church while Nishanian is a member of the Apostolic Armenian Church.
Nishanian, who is also a close friend of Mesrop II, said he has closely observed every step of the patriarch’s illness and raised doubts about it. “I have met the patriarch many times …it is very hard for me to believe his illness was due to natural causes,” saod Nishanian.
He raised the 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.”
Mahchubian 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 who would act in solidarity with his community but in time, he found a small faction 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.”
Mahchubian 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 the patriarch should be a symbolic one,” said Mahchubian.
“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,” Mahchubian 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,” Mahchubian said but emphasized that the community was adapting to the situation.
In contrast to Mahchubian’s criticism of Mesrop II, Nishanian 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, Nishanian 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, Nishanian 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.”