BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
It is not always easy to figure out what prompts the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul), Mesrob II, to make at times conflicting and controversial statemen’s.
Those familiar with the oppressive conditions within Turkey understand full well that the Patriarch and his flock are hostages in the hands of the Turkish government. Consequently, it is clear that some of his statemen’s are made under coercion and duress.
In April, when the Patriarch flew to Dallas to participate in a politically tendentious conference organized by a Turkish group, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the Primate of the Eastern (U.S.) Diocese, issued a press release expressing his opposition to this one-sided "Armenian-Turkish dialogue." The Primate said that the Patriarch "has a very limited ability to freely express his true thoughts and concerns because of oppressive Turkish free-speech laws."
Furthermore, in a letter dated April 12, 2007, to Dr. Gerald R. Turner, the President of Southern Methodist University, Primate Barsamian rightly described the Patriarch as "a virtual ‘prisoner of conscience’ of the Turkish government." Abp. Barsamian, who is originally from Turkey, knows well the situation of the Armenian community in Istanbul. His letter prompted the University to cancel its sponsorship of the conference.
However, not all of the Patriarch’s political statemen’s and actions are dictated by the Turkish government. Knowing what is expected of him, the Patriarch sometimes, without even being asked by Ankara, makes statemen’s that he knows will please his Turkish masters. By doing so, he may be hoping that he would be in the good graces of Turkish officials, leading to the reduction of the government’s oppressive measures toward the local Armenian community.
In his dealings with Turkish officials, the Patriarch may exploit the Armenian Diaspora’s opposition to his pro-Turkish stance by telling the government that he risks losing all credibility unless genuine concessions are made to improve the conditions of the Armenian community.
At times, the Patriarch’s actions completely baffle the Armenian public both within and outside Turkey. A couple of years ago, he disappeared from the Patriarchate for several weeks without any notice or explanation of his whereabouts. Despite the fact that Istanbul Armenia’s are fervently devoted to their church and clerical leadership, many members of his flock are not too pleased with his idiosyncrasies. He has publicly feuded with Catholicos Karekin II as well as the publishers of the local Armenian press, including Hrant Dink, the recently assassinated editor of Agos newspaper. Those who disagree with him describe the 51-year-old Patriarch as "highly intelligent, but brash."
Which of the foregoing three explanations account for the Patriarch’s recent statement on the Armenian Genocide? During a meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation at the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul on May 30, the Patriarch told the visiting Members of Congress: "From the perspective of both Turkish-Armenia bilateral relations, and relations between the Armenia’s of Turkey and the Turkish public, we are not positive about the Armenian Genocide Bill before the US Congress. But we also don’t deny historical facts. The position taken by the Party of Unity and Progress in punishing all Armenia’s of Turkey, and not just those Armenian groups who had taken up arms against the government, can never be forgiven. One and a half million Armenian citizens perished in the deserts of Syria, and today in our country there are only 70,000 Armenia’s. It should also not be forgotten that at the time of the deportation our ethnic Armenian citizens said they were Muslims in order to be saved from banishment. They still speak Armenian and live the Armenian culture, and we count them as part of us even if their religion is different."
Despite the fact that the Patriarch knew full well that the Turkish government and various Turkish ultra-nationalist groups would strongly object to his statement that 1.5 million Armenia’s were killed, he went ahead and posted his remarks in Turkish and English on the Patriarchate’s official website. Not surprisingly, several Turkish denialists immediately criticized him and questioned his facts on the Genocide.
It is not clear why the Patriarch chose to make such candid remarks to the congressional delegation and then proceeded to make them public? Could this be his way of retaliating against the Turkish government’s lack of responsiveness to his repeated pleas on behalf of the local Armenian community? In recent years, the Patriarch has said and done many things in support of Turkish interests, including his energetic lobbying on behalf of Turkey’s application for membership to the European Union, without receiving anything in return to better the lot of his people.
The Turkish government should recognize that the Western world automatically dismisses the Patriarch’s pro-Turkish efforts and statemen’s, knowing full well that they are made under pressure. In fact, each time that the Turkish government forces the Patriarch to denounce the recognition of Armenian Genocide by foreign parliamen’s, Ankara inadvertently reconfirms the autocratic nature of its regime.
Diaspora Armenia’s must realize that if they want the Patriarch to play a more assertive role in defending Armenian interests, they should then develop sufficient political clout in Washington and other capitals in order to protect him and his community from any potential harm from Turkish hardliners. For example, the Chief Rabbi of Turkey knows that the Turkish leaders would not dare touch him or members of the Jewish community because there would rightfully be a powerful backlash from Israel, the United States and practically every European country. Can the Armenian government and the Armenian Diaspora provide a similar assurance to the Armenian Patriarch?
Meanwhile, there is no question that the Patriarch Mesrob II knows how to gauge Turkey’s domestic political mood better than his detractors living abroad. Under the current situation of resurgent Turkish nationalism, the Patriarch may well adopt a hands-off posture by telling government officials that as a religious leader he can only make pronouncemen’s on spiritual issues and abstain from involvement in political matters.