Turkey Must Stop Meddling in Armenian Church Affairs

The Turkish government is imposing its political preferences when it comes to selecting the leaders of the country’s minority groups—and posing a threat to religious freedom.

By Aykan Erdemir, the senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and John A. Lechner
Bishop Sahak Masalyan (center), the chairman of the Religious Council of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, addresses the congregation at Surp Asdvadzadzin Patriarchal Church on Nov. 11, 2019.
Bishop Sahak Masalyan (center), the chairman of the Religious Council of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, addresses the congregation at Surp Asdvadzadzin Patriarchal Church on Nov. 11, 2019. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 12, 2019, the U.S. Senate approved for the first time a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide and commemorate “the killing of an estimated 1,500,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.” The previous day, Turkey’s embattled Armenian community of 70,000 elected Sahak Masalyan as the 85th patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The patriarchal elections came 11 years too late and featured heavy-handed meddling from a Turkish government increasingly irritated by the growing list of countries that recognize the Armenian genocide.

The Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, established in 1461, enjoyed relative autonomy under the Ottoman millet system, as the church provided spiritual and civic leadership to its members. An Ottoman code in 1863 introduced lay participation in church affairs, and the Turkish government’s 1951 decree governing patriarchal elections provided a vaguely worded guideline as to how delegates chosen by lay members and the Spiritual Council would then elect the patriarch.

Mesrob Mutafyan, Turkey’s previous Armenian patriarch, died in March 2019, but he actually had been unable to fulfill leadership duties since 2008, due to early onset dementia. Given the circumstances, in January 2010, a divided Armenian community petitioned Turkey’s Interior Ministry, as lay members wished to elect a new patriarch and the clerics a co-patriarch.

The Turkish government responded six months later that there was no legal basis for elections, as the current patriarch was still alive and instead called for the creation of a “deputy-general patriarch” position, taking advantage of the divisions within the Armenian community to insert itself firmly into church affairs. Archbishop Aram Atesyan, whom the Turkish government considered to be more in line with its sensibilities, assumed the role of deputy-general patriarch.

In March 2017, the Spiritual Council elected Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian, from the German Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as locum tenens—a temporary administrator responsible for carrying out the election of a new patriarch. Within minutes of losing the vote, Atesyan conveniently produced a note from the governor of Istanbul, voiding the elections as they may “cause disturbance and divisions in the society.” Later, the Turkish government notified the patriarchate that the Turkish authorities did not recognize Bekdjian and still regarded Atesyan as the deputy-general.

The Apostolic Church’s uncertain legal standing exacerbates the Armenian community’s problems and facilitates the Turkish government’s ability to meddle in its affairs and exploit divisions. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed shortly before the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, guaranteed equal rights to the country’s Armenians and other non-Muslim minorities but no legal status. Successive Turkish governments have not only failed to treat the country’s religious minorities as equal citizens but also prevented their religious bodies from obtaining legal status, a criticism that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has consistently raised in its annual reports.

To make matters worse, since 2013, the Turkish government has blocked minority foundations from electing new board members, weakening the very institutions vital for running day-to-day affairs in the absence of legal status for the religious communities themselves. This policy has not only incapacitated religious minorities by restricting their legal and economic room for maneuver but also left them indebted to the mercy of the Turkish government. Over the years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has perfected the art of swinging between scapegoating and benevolent treatment of minorities as part of his strategy of instrumentalizing minorities to advance his policies at home and abroad.

After Mutafyan’s death last March, Ankara had to permit elections but introduced a last-minute regulation that rendered many popular candidates ineligible on the grounds that they were serving abroad, reducing the list of candidates to two. Many members of the Apostolic Church boycotted the elections, including Garo Paylan, one of Turkey’s two Armenian lawmakers, who protested, “I will not recognize the elected person as my patriarch.” Others went to the polls but showed their anger by voting against Atesyan for his decadelong cooperation with the Turkish government.

Among Turkey’s surviving minorities, Armenians perhaps know best the consequences of state interest—for good or bad—in their community and its affairs. Like many other religious minorities, they were hopeful during the early years of Erdogan’s leadership, since he promised to open up Turkey’s rigid secular system with his Ottoman-inspired “tolerance.” In 2014, shortly before his ascent to Turkey’s presidency, he even wished that “the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace” and conveyed his condolences to their descendants.

Despite Erdogan’s increasing reliance on Turkey’s ultranationalists for his political survival since 2015, he has not ended his occasional outreach to Armenians. On the day of the previous patriarch’s passing, he tweeted in Western Armenian, “I was deeply saddened by the death of the … honorable Mesrob Mutafyan. I offer my condolences to his family, relatives, and our Armenian citizens.” Erdogan is the first Turkish head of state to reach out in Western Armenian, and his gesture prompted questions about whether he truly sought to heal historic wounds or merely to deflect criticism.

Just six weeks later, on April 24, Erdogan proved optimists wrong, stating publicly that the 1915 Ottoman policy of relocating “the Armenian gangs and their supporters … was the most reasonable action.” This whitewashing attempt drew the ire of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who called it “an ultimate insult to the #Armenian people and to humanity.”

Turkey’s Armenians are not the only minorities caught in Erdogan’s Byzantine mixing of politics and religion. The embattled Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Greek Orthodox community, as per Turkish law, can only nominate Turkish citizens for the Holy Synod, which in turn elects the patriarch. Thus, the Greek Orthodox community is also at the mercy of the Turkish government, which can grant or refuse dual citizenship to foreign-born clerics and thereby meddle in church affairs.

Turkey’s relations with Armenians at home and abroad touch on deep-rooted issues of national legitimacy and identity. Resolving these issues will require genuine outreach to Armenians at governmental and societal levels and generations to redress wrongs and heal wounds. A small step in the right direction, however, would be the recognition of legal status for Armenians and also for Greeks, Jews, and other religious minorities in Turkey—and allowing these communities to elect leaders as they see fit.

Aykan Erdemir is the senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was a member of the Turkish parliament representing the Republican People’s Party (CHP) from 2011 to 2015. Twitter: @aykan_erdemir

John A. Lechner is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Twitter: @JohnLechner1