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Marine Martirosyan

Who Should Become the Next Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople? Hetq Talks to Istanbul Political Activist Kayuş Çalıkman Gavrilof

On April 29, the Religious Council of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople decided to petition the Istanbul Governor’s Office for permission to hold a new election for the post of patriarch.

Acting Patriarch Aram Ateshyan and Bishop Sahak Mashalian, Secretary of the Patriarchate’s Religious Council, then visited the Istanbul Governor’s Office and discussed the matter with then  Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya.

No date of the possible new election has yet been announced.

Kayuş Çalıkman Gavrilof, an Armenian political activist from Istanbul, has strong views on who should be the next Armenian Apostolic Church Patriarch of Constantinople and why it’s so important that the most capable candidate get the job.

It’s an issue that has divided the Armenian community in Turkey for years ever since the 84th Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, was hospitalized in 2008.

While most community members called for new elections to name a new patriarch, the Turkish government opposed the move on the eve of an election in 2010, citing a clause of the 1863 Armenian National Constitution stipulating that elections for a new patriarch could only be held after the death of the current one.

In 2010, after Patriarch Mutafyan was incapacitated due to Alzheimer’s, Archbishop Aram Ateshyan was appointed Acting Patriarch by the Istanbul Governor’s Office. His appointment and continued rule as “proxy patriarch” angered many in the community who wanted an end to Turkish state interference in their communal affairs.

In 2016, the Religious Council finally officially retired Mutafyan from the post of patriarch. This move, however, did not result in new elections. On March 15, 2017, Karekin Bekçiyan was unanimously elected as locum tenens and tasked with organizing the election for a new patriarch. The Turkish government backed Ateshyan, who had lost to Bekçiyan. The Turkish government said it recognized Ateshyan as Acting Patriarch and that it did not recognize the results of the Bekçiyan election.

Several tumultuous months later Bekçiyan departed Istanbul, leaving Ateshyan as Acting Patriarch.

The community’s hope for a new, independent election, became more of a reality on March 8, 2019, when Patriarch Mutafyan passed away in Istanbul’s Armenian Surp Prgich Hospital.

The Turkish government can no longer cite the clause in the 1863 Constitution to prevent a new election.

Gavrilof told Hetq that the Istanbul Armenian community is united in demanding an election for a new patriarch.

The most likely candidates are Archbishop Aram Ateshyan, Bishop Sahak Mashalian and Archbishop Sebouh Chouldjian, Primate of Armenia’s Gougark Diocese. (Chouldjian, who was born in Turkey, was a candidate for Acting Patriarch in the 2010 election.)

As to the favorite, Gavrilof says the community desperately needs someone new, a candidate that can unite the people both around the church and in non-religious matters.

“We need a new power that can impart an embracing national spirit to the community. The Armenians of Turkey are on their last breath. It will be a clergyman who knows the community very well and who is not involved in the Byzantine intrigues taking place within the Patriarchate, someone free from secular ambitions, who will liberate this post and this community,” Gavrilof says.

Gavrilof, who ran on the Turkish People’s Democracy Party ticket (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP for short) in the March 30, 2014 Turkish local elections, says she supports Archbishop Chouldjian and that many in the Armenian community back him as well.

When asked if Ateshyan’s claim that he has good relations with the Turkish government may work to his advantage, Gavrilof said that in the past both Ateshyan and Mashalian used such an argument to their advantage.

The Istanbul Armenian activist is quick to point out that the Turkish state is no newcomer to such machinations and that any “good relations” are always in its favor.

She believes that the government has secretly provided Mashalian with words of encouragement, thus allowing the bishop to throw his hat in the ring.

“As I said, the community is wavering between the three candidates. I’m convinced that most of the community, like I, wants a new force and a new name, that doesn’t live in the country but who is well aware of the community’s situation and is known to it,” Gavrilof says.

As to the possibility that the Turkish government will once again intervene in the election process, Gavrilof says the community shares some of the blame.

“The state likes to see us as a religious community. During these past years, we have effectively become a religious community, especially as a result of the efforts of a few clergymen, while discarding our nationality to one side. By becoming Christian Turks, we’re now navigating our ship in waters owned by the state. Thus, state interference is unavoidable.”

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