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November 12, 2010, Friday

Can non-Muslims choose their religious leaders in Turkey?

As I tried to explain in my last piece, the current government has played quite a reformist role since they have come to power. There are very good things that they have done for non-Muslims, but there are also occasions on which they have simply followed in the footsteps of the Turkish deep state and official policies, from which they have also suffered.

We, for example, cannot see the same open-minded perspective that this government has developed in foreign policy when it comes to minority-related issues. Rather, they preferred to maintain the status quo, whether it is in the interest of anyone in Turkey or not.

The latest example of this pro-status quo approach is their unnecessary interference in the election process of the Armenian patriarch. Mesrob II Mutafyan, who was elected patriarch for life in 1998 by the Armenian community, has been ill and unfit to carry out this task for a while. His illness created a leadership vacuum from which the whole patriarchate suffers.

Before going into the details of this crisis, maybe I should explain the “legal framework” for the election of the patriarch. On this topic there is no law, no bylaw, not even a regulation in Turkey. Actually, you cannot find a single reference to any institution or organ of religious minorities in Turkish legal codes. This is, of course, is a deliberate absence aimed at both creating uncertainty and allowing the state the chance to have the “final word” in case of conflict. The only legal document regulating the “status” of the Armenian Patriarchate is the 1863 Regulation enacted during the Ottoman Empire. Armenians follow this regulation and their long traditions in relation to the administration of the patriarchate. Previous governments pretended that they acted according to certain rules, but did everything to control and manipulate these institutions.

The last crisis is like a drop in the ocean. It summarizes everything: how minorities play their roles of learned helplessness in Turkey, how they seek legitimacy from the approval of the government, instead of using legal instruments and their ancient traditions and so on.

When Mutafyan’s health situation became clear and it was understood that there was no possibility that he would recover, a conflict occurred in the Armenian community. One group defended the view that they should choose a new patriarch; the other group objected to this, arguing that it was against their traditions to choose a new patriarch while the elected one was still alive, no matter how unfit for duty. The latter group suggested choosing a “co-patriarch.” Instead of sitting around a table and trying to settle their internal dispute, both groups applied to the government for approval of the “election procedure.”

This government, unfortunately, instead of refusing to take part in an internal conflict, only made things much worse by “declaring” that they should appoint a patriarchal vicar general (Patrik Vekili). The official reasoning was that a new patriarch could not have been chosen while the elected one is still alive. The unofficial reason was the simple fact that the Armenian community could have chosen someone from Armenia. The second wing, which proposed a co-patriarch, accepted the government’s offer and appointed a patriarchal vicar general, which is obviously an alien entity for the Armenian community. This interference, I think, was a deadly blow for the patriarchate. It weakened its legitimacy and its power to represent its own people and, even more dangerously, sowed the seeds of an internal conflict within the Armenian community.

Everything about this intervention is wrong. The election of a religious leader by a religious community has nothing to do with any government; it is none of their business.

The Ittihadist deep state in Turkey deliberately created a legal vacuum for non-Muslim communities in order to constantly weaken them and to continue the process of forcing them out of Anatolia. This government should have changed these policies by providing them with legal recognition and by providing the community with clear rights. But instead, the government followed old “state traditions,” like interfering in the Armenian Patriarchate election, or trying to solve problems through de facto means without giving these institutions “legal rights” and “legal recognition.”

Therefore, I am not surprised to hear a Greek newspaper’s allegation that there is indeed a hidden agreement between the government and the Greek Patriarchate in İstanbul. Can these kinds of steps promote freedom of religion in Turkey? I will try to answer this question in my Sunday column.

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