“The interference the Armenian community faces today is only a small reflection of the bigger problems that Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities face in general,” says lawyer Orhan Cengiz.

A years-long saga on the leadership gap in Turkey’s Armenian Church has reached still another snag, Al-Monitor reported on March 22.

The debilitating illness of the spiritual leader of Turkey’s largest Christian community has left Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan alive, but unable to fulfill his church duties since 2008. So in October 2016, the Clerical Assembly of the Armenian Apostolic Church followed the Church’s canonical traditions and voted to retire him.

But in the eight-year interim, the community had become divided over how to replace the church’s leadership vacuum: by electing a new Patriarch, or a temporary co-Patriarch until the incumbent’s death? When both factions had, after 2008, applied separately to the Turkish Interior Ministry for permission to hold elections, the government denied both applications, instead ordering the Church to select a deputy-general Patriarch.

Although such a post was without precedent in Church canons, the Patriarchate complied, and Archbishop Aram Atesyan was appointed deputy-general Patriarch in July 2010.

But for the six months since Patriarch Mesrob’s retirement became official, Archbishop Atesyan declined to apply to the Istanbul Governor’s office to begin the election process for a new Patriarch. So finally the Clerical Assembly met on 15 March and elected their traditional “degabah” (trustee), tasked to manage the Patriarchal election process and run the Patriarchate until the new Patriarch assumes office. Although Archbishop Atesyan was a candidate, the vote went to Archbishop Karekin Bekciyan, the primate of the Armenian diocese of Germany.

But later that day, Atesyan produced a letter from the Istanbul Governor’s office, stating that the Armenian community was “well-aware of the fundamental methods and customs on the election of patriarchs,” and stressing that a deputy-general Patriarch is already on duty. Signed by the Istanbul deputy Governor, the notice declared that “starting the election process is legally impossible, given the facts that this process might cause disturbance and divisions in the society.”

“This is a religious matter,” Bishop Sahak Masalyan told the Armenian weekly Agos the next day. “We all feel frustrated by the fact that the secular state crossed this line and interfered in a religious matter.”

In effect, since the state has blocked the Church’s consensus for a trustee to begin and oversee the election process, the Patriarchal elections are now derailed and left in limbo.

“The interference the Armenian community faces today is only a small reflection of the bigger problems that Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities face in general,” Turkish human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in an overview for Al-Monitor.

“The real problem lies in the absence of any law on the institutions of religious minorities, and the Turkish government’s refusal to recognize those institutions as legal personalities.” It is this absence of a legal framework, Cengiz observed, that continues to enable all kinds of Turkish state intervention into the affairs of non-Muslim minorities.

Sources: Al-Monitor, Agos