Surp Astvazazin Church, Bakırköy, İstanbul (Credit: Murat Bay)

The election of a new patriarch for Turkey’s Armenian community has been marred by accusations of government interference which may cast a shadow on the new leader’s legitimacy. 

Archbishop Sahak Masalyan defeated his rival, Archbishop Aram Atesyan, after an extraordinary state intervention that barred clerics abroad from running and spurred communal calls for a boycott.

“Armenians are under heavy government pressure or, in other words, are subjected to arbitrary intervention,” said Arno Kalayci, a member of the Armenian initiative Nor Zartonk (New Renaissance).

Arno Kalayci, a member of the Armenian initiative Nor Zartonk (New Renaissance). (Credit: Murat Bay)

Turkey’s Armenian community had been unable to elect a new patriarch since 2008, when then-Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan lapsed into a vegetative state following the onset of dementia. He died in March 2019.

But the December 8 vote in which Masalyan became the 85th Armenian Patriarch has split the Armenian community. 

Interior ministry bylaws based on the Armenian National Constitution of 1863, which came into force under the Ottoman empire, have governed the patriarchate elections since 1961. 

Restrictions have never been previously imposed, including in the last two elections in 1990 and 1998. A July judgement by the Constitutional Court, Turkey’s highest judicial body, had ruled that interference in the patriarchate elections was a violation of Armenians’ right to religious freedom.

However, in September the Turkish interior ministry issued a bylaw governing the election that barred candidates from abroad from running. This restricted the candidacy to bishops from Istanbul’s Armenian Patriarchate; in effect only two out of the 12 senior members of the clergy were eligible to run. 

The clergy’s decision to proceed with the vote despite government interference provoked criticism by Armenians in Turkey who said the church was now complicit in the state’s violations.

Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of Agos, the leading Armenian magazine in Turkey. (Credit: Murat Bay)

“There’s the shadow of the state, but it’s not just that,” said Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of Agos, the leading Armenian magazine in Turkey. “Clerics and the board which is responsible for holding elections have also decided not to object to the bylaw that banned candidates from abroad. Therefore, there’s not only state intervention here, but also members of the Armenian community share some of the blame.”

The criticism was echoed by Rober Koptas, a prominent Turkish-Armenian publisher who described the state’s intervention as “unacceptable” and pinned the responsibility on the archbishops who competed in the election.

Rober Koptas, a prominent Turkish-Armenian publisher. (Credit: Murat Bay)

“A social consensus has emerged that the current bylaw was problematic and elections were not fair under these conditions,” said Kalayci, adding that some Armenian citizens of Turkey have filed lawsuits to revoke the bylaw.

Nor Zartonk had objected to the bylaw, calling it “an obvious state intervention into freedom of belief and organisation,” and organised a boycott of the vote. Prominent figures in the community, like People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Diyarbakir lawmaker Garo Paylan, were also among those who boycotted the elections. 

“An unsuccessful, anti-democratic, unfair and unscrupulous election was held,” Paylan said. “Both candidates have unfortunately colluded in this unfair election with ambitions to win the post.”

People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Diyarbakir lawmaker Garo Paylan. (Credit: Murat Bay)

“I don’t accept this election, which does not comply with the public conscience,” he added.

 “This distorted relationship bypassed the civilian representation mechanisms and it made the problems of Armenians chronic over time,” Kalayci said. “We, as Nor Zartonk, see the patriarch as a spiritual leader and view the election process from that perspective. Armenians should have a democratic, participatory, many-voiced internal procedure and representation mechanism in earthly and political matters. They should also be able to elect their patriarch freely according to the laws of their church and traditions, but the illegal intervention of the state is preventing this from happening”, Kalayci added.

People voting on December 8 for the 85th Armenian Patriarch at Dadyan Armenian school in Istanbul. (Credit: Murat Bay)

Some members of the community believe the bigger risk is that the state’s interference in the election will set a precedent of tight control over the Armenian church.

“We’ll wait and see what kind of policies the person who was elected will conduct,” said Agos editor Danzikyan. “However, at the end of the day, the state has intervened and the actors who conducted this election process didn’t push back. If things go on in this way, the sense of ‘let’s do what the state says’ will continue, and we’ll have problems.”