An administrative decision dating back to 2017 that refused two initiatives to elect a new patriarch for the Armenian Orthodox Church was a violation of the right of religious freedom, Turkey’s Constitutional Court said in a detailed ruling Wednesday, Daily Sabah reports.
The issue that pitted different groups within Turkey’s Armenian community and the Istanbul Governor’s Office began in the summer of 2007 when late Patriarch Mesrob II, commonly known by his civilian name Mesrob Mutafyan since he succeeded Karekin II in 1998, fell ill due to dementia, which was diagnosed in 2008.
Under Turkish laws and patriarchate rules, a new patriarch cannot be elected while his predecessor is alive, and Mesrob II’s case was the first instance that left the Armenian community puzzled about how to proceed with replacing a living religious leader, especially one that was also viewed as a uniting figure and a representative of the community. Archbishop Aram Ateshyan was appointed to serve as the Patriarchal Vicar in 2008 as the 84th patriarch had to withdraw from his duties.
In June 2010, the Istanbul Governorate tacitly rejected the second group by not responding to their appeal while also rejecting the first group’s appeal, arguing that the post of patriarch was not empty, and hence an election for a “general acting patriarch” could be held instead. The Clerical Committee of the patriarchate voted 25-1 to elect Ateshyan to the acting patriarch post in July 2010, and a cabinet decision in August confirmed this appointment.
However, the move was not viewed legitimate by a significant portion of the Armenian community since whole community has participated in the patriarchate election since 1863, when a code of regulations concerning the Armenian “millet” in the Ottoman Empire was introduced. According to the document referred to as the Regulation of the Armenian Nation, or the Armenian National Constitution, which was transformed into a cabinet decree in 1961, first civilians vote for the delegates who then vote for the patriarch.
Following heated debates and even protests, which were mainly aimed at Ateshyan, the Clerical Committee finally decided to “retire” Mesrob II in late October 2016 based on ancient laws and church traditions that enable the annulment of the vows of religious leaders if they “disappear” for seven years, and declared the patriarch’s post vacant, which paved the way for a patriarchal election. Earlier in March, a court had assigned Mesrob II’s mother Mari Mutafyan as his legal guardian due to his illness.
In the meantime, the Istanbul Governorate said in a statement that the deghabagh election was invalid since Mesrob II was still alive. This view was reiterated in February 2018 in the governorate’s written statement addressed to the patriarchate, in which Bekçiyan was referred to as the “so-called” deghabagh and Ateshyan was referred to as the acting patriarch. Shortly after, Bekçiyan returned to Germany, saying he did not want to be involved in a debate that could tear down the community.
Two Turkish-Armenian citizens used their rights to individual application to the Constitutional Court in October 2014 and later in February 2016, saying the administrative rulings breached their right of religious freedom. The court ruled in favor of the applicants on May 22 in an 11-4 vote. In its detailed ruling released on July 10, the court said that the Ministry of Interior misinterpreted the Ottoman-era regulation, which required an election not only for death or resignation of a patriarch but also for other “various reasons”, without specifications.
The court noted that there had been previous cases when a patriarch had abandoned his seat without resigning and an election was held afterwards. The court also said in the elections of 1950, 1961, 1990 and 1998 during the Republican era, civilians had a say over clergymen, and the postponement of the elections ignored their will. The fact that the ministry decided on which conditions the patriarch could be elected also breached the freedom of religion and faith enshrined in the constitution, the court said.