The Armenian Predicament in Turkey

Archbishop-Aram-Atesyan11Archbishop Aram Atesyan, General Vicar (Acting Patriarch) of the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople in an interview with Aline Ozinian, spoke about the various issues the Armenian community in Turkey confronts. Those include relations with the government, the role of the Patriarchate in the life of the community, Islamized  Armenians, mixed marriages, and attacks against Armenian Churches in Eastern Turkey.

-Your Eminence, recently, the foreign, as well as the Turkish and Armenian media has widely discussed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s April 23rd message, which was followed by your meetings with both Erdogan and the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Turkey. You were accompanied by representatives of the Armenian community in these meetings. Were these representatives selected by you or by the state?

-No. Every time when I’m invited to the capital Ankara by the prime minister or ministers, I select people who accompany me, and they are not necessarily the same people every time. They are prominent figures in the Armenian community, philanthropists and community figures who attend the meeting as representatives of the Armenian community. Since the times of the Ottoman Empire, the state has recognized the religious leader, giving him the title Cemaat Basi, and official relations were conducted with him. And the religious leader selects people who are aware of the matter at hand. However, the decision is ours.

-Your Eminence, following your meetings the Turkish media wrote that the people accompanying you were the secular leaders of the community. Why does the Turkish state want to perceive it this way? Are there any plans that the community in Istanbul should have another structure besides the Istanbul Patriarchate, or this is just a mistake of the Turkish press?

-No, that is the mistake of Turkish press. There is no such initiative underway. Each community figure leads one foundation, for example, the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Yedikule Surp Pırgiç Armenian Hospital is Bedros Sirinoglu. But the community leader is always the religious leader, who sends the chair as a representative. He represents the community and the Patriarchate. The Patriarchate selects them. No institution or individual can spontaneously represent the community, because the Patriarchate is the center, and the religious leader is the community leader. In this case, attention is focused on Bedros Sirinoglu; today he is the Chair of the Board of Trustees, but if tomorrow the chair changes, that person will be the principal representative of the community.

-When you welcomed Erdogan’s message, you did that on behalf of the Patriarchate, isn’t that so?

-On behalf of the Patriarchate and the community, because the religious leader is the only person who can speak on behalf of the community. No other institution or individual can speak on behalf of the community. In that case they represent themselves only.

-Your Eminence, the community has a variety of issues related to estates and churches, but recently we witnessed manipulations during local council elections. Do you think it’s time to change the election procedure, has such a necessity matured?

– In fact, it is our fault because the majority of the representatives of our foundations mobilized around the idea of a general election, regional elections. Istanbul was divided to three regions so that all Armenians had the right to elect and be elected. But the others appealed to the ministry requesting the elections be held in districts, and the district population choose the local council. However, there are districts which have a population of 10, others have 100, while some others like Ferikoy, have a population of 30,000, and Bakirkoy has a population of 15,000. We wanted to unite these 10 or 100 within the regions, however, as the ministry found itself between two different requests, it postponed the issue. According to the minister, they could have made a decision in half an hour and imposed it, but they wanted us to agree upon one system for elections.

-In other words, the Armenian community should find a solution and not the state.

-The minister openly said. “Look at the amount of requests on my table. If I have a different approach to each one, I will not be able to grant you permission to hold elections.”

-And why is the community so polarized and why can’t it unite around one idea?

-This is not new, it has always been like that, there have always been groups. We have never been able to be united.

-Will this issue find a solution in the near future?

-It should. We explained to the ministry that the center of the community is the Patriarchate, and the leader of the community is the religious leader, like in the Ottoman times, therefore, his approval is needed. And it’s the Patriarchate which drafts a proposal and presents it to the ministry after discussions in the community. The ministry approved the idea of the Patriarchate being the community center. The ministry said that they are not the ones placing a barrier, we are the ones who are doing that.

-Your Eminence, I would like to speak about the hidden or crypto-Armenians, the Islamized Armenians. Do many people apply to the Patriarchate to convert their religion? In an interview 1-2 years ago, you said that there was a large number of Islamized Armenians in Turkey; this comment caused some controversy. Please tell us about your statement and the subsequent developments.

-There are people who have an Armenian grandmother or grandfather, however, following 1915 how can they feel Armenian? If they are Armenians, then I would demand that they apply to the Patriarchate and pass a one or six month course, whatever I decide, about Christianity, the Armenian Church. At the end of the course, they need to change their religion in their passport to Christian. In that case, they need to become a member of the Armenian Church. As to simply saying “My grandfather, grandmother are Armenian,” I do not accept such things.

-Are there many applicants?

-No. Now they say there are 1.5 million Armenians, referring to the generations of survivors and those killed in 1915. But what’s the benefit for me or the church that they only say, “My mother, grandmother, grandfather was Armenian?”

– In other words, they say it, however they don’t do anything about it.

-No, they do not apply to the Patriarchate. There was an issue in Tigranakert. There were 1000 Armenians, but why didn’t anyone apply to me? Only one person did so, besides the 7-8 people that I converted into Armenian 15 years ago and wed them to Armenians. I have brought female students from Adiyaman to study in the Kalfayan school. These, of course, are different examples. I don’t accept the words “My roots are Armenian, and so am I,” because my numbers don’t grow from that. I say, OK, come to the Patriarchate and get baptised, they agree, but want to have Islam written in their passport. Why are you going to practice two religions?

-That is, they don’t want to officially convert.

-No, they don’t, they want to take advantage of both religions, but it’s impossible. Or they want the religion section in their passport to be left empty.

-Ok, but if a person identifies himself as Armenian, has Armenian parents and wants to convert, but has no documents, what should he do?

-If I make sure, and they accept my conditions and agree to take courses and have Christian stated as their religion in their passport…by the way, some tell me that they are from the regions, how will they participate in lessons…I tell them that I will send all the materials for them to study, then I ask them several questions to make sure they have read those materials, and when I’m sure they have, I baptise them. It is unacceptable for me when they say, let the religion section in my passport be left empty or let it be Muslim.

-Has the state given you the right to convert people to Christianity without documents, being convinced of their conviction?

-This government issued rights to all religious leaders, so that when people apply to us to convert to Christianity, we are be able to sign an official document with the photo of the person and send it to official bodies. The passport of the person is immediately changed, and Christian is stated in it without any issues. Previously, this process went through the court, requests were denied and people could not change their religion. But today, even without my assistance, people can change their religion very quickly, it takes five minutes.

-Is it a simple process?

-Yes, quite simple.

-Your Eminence, since you are currently in Yerevan, I have one question which is of great interest – how many members does the Armenian community of Istanbul have?

-We say 70 000.

-The registered ones?

-70 000 is not the number of registered, but since the majority of our local councils has no precise election system, and therefore no clear figures of the local population, and since there are Armenians who were not registered, taking these things into consideration we say 70 thousand.

During the election of Patriarch Mesrob, 15,800 people voted and we know that even 1/5th does not take part in the various church or local elections. Therefore, I multiplied 15 thousand to five thousand and got the number 70,000. There are many of us. There are also many Armenians in the regions, who despite being Muslim in their passport, wear a cross, speak Armenian, pray before a meal. I call them converted Armenians, hidden Armenians, instead of those who simply say “My grandmother, my grandfather was Armenian, so am I.” They are not hidden Armenians.Since there was heavy oppression at the end of the 1950s on Armenians living in the East of Turkey, they officially had to convert. There are people among them who have stated “Christian” as the religion in their passport, but they hide their religion and nationality from the neighbours. I get the number 75,000 without taking into account these people.

-Your Eminence, has the number of mixed marriages between Armenians and Turks increased recently?

-Unfortunately, yes.

-Do Armenians marry other nationalities besides Turks?

-No, no. We use the term mixed marriages in general. Unfortunately, there are many cases, especially in the last 6-7 years, be it with the Turks, black people or people of different faiths. The total number is very big.

-How does the Armenian Apostolic church react to this? Does it perform the marriage ceremony?

-We do not do anything. Previously, Mesrob Patriarch, may God grant him health, had instituted a blessing ritual, which itself was not a marriage ceremony, but was simply  blessing the unity of two people so that when God gave them a child, they were able to baptize that child. However, our Religious Council, under our leadership put an end to this system and decided that in case of mixed marriages, if they want to baptize their children, we will gladly baptize them one one condition, that the baptism is noted in the child’s documents.

-So, this is news as well. Years ago, when the parents were not married in the church, you didn’t baptize [their children], is that correct?

-No, we did not baptize in the past. We waited until the child grew up to see whether he/she would go to Armenian school, whether he/she became a member of the Armenian community, although he/she cannot be a member without being baptized. If the parents did not send the child to Armenian school, we did not baptize the child, and so, many stayed unbaptized. But as I said, Patriarch Mesrob developed a blessing system in order to baptize children. This caused issues within families.

Many complained that the blessing, which is like a marriage ceremony, encourages mixed marriages for their children. Therefore, the Religious Council, taking into account those complaints, put an end to that system, and we agreed that children from mixed marriages could be baptized on one condition – that Christian is stated in their documents. Mixed marriages are causing us pain, but the pain is greater, when girls from Armenia come to Turkey.

-The citizens of Armenia who come to Turkey.

-Yes, those who don’t have much knowledge about Turkey, come and marry Muslims. A reporter asked me whether I am against Armenian girls marrying Turks, Muslims. I am against mixed marriages, marriage with Turks and marriage with Muslims are different things. If someone you are planning to marry, does not belong to the Armenian church, that is a mixed marriage already.

-A Christian must marry a Christian.

-Yes, even with an Armenian. If you marry a Protestant or a Catholic, although he/she is a Christian, will their name continue to remain in our church records or in another church? And will their children belong to the Catholic or Protestant church, and not the Armenian church?

-How is it possible to fight it, both as a Patriarch and through schools unions? How can the community counteract it?

-It is impossible to counteract it. It starts with the parents who must send their children to Armenian school or if they have an opportunity, to participate in church choirs, where our Armenian youth gathers, so that Armenian girls can meet Armenian boys,  grow up together and fall in love with an Armenian of that region. Meanwhile there are thousands of Armenians who have not stepped foot into an Armenian school, who have studied in foreign schools, local schools, so who is their social circle?


-They don’t have Armenian friends. One day they fall in love, present that person to their parents saying, “I want to marry this person.” Thus, the parents are the first teachers, they have to teach, and then the school. We have 13 schools today, the Catholics have three. Together, there are 3000-3050 students. It’s not much. The future is known.

-My last question concerns the the churches in the east. As we are aware, the Turks and Kurds look for gold and valuable treasures in those churches. CivilNet even prepared a report about it on April 24. How do you assess it, do they really find treasure, what is their objective and do they turn to you for maps?

-Yes, many do. And we say we have plenty.

-Who are those that come?

-In general, many come from villages, there are also clever ones who draw fake maps and sell them claiming there is treasure in a church. Some were found in one or two churches, but that doesn’t mean there is treasure in every church. What do we mean by treasure? In 1915, when the villages were being emptied, and the priest left, there were items in the church such as censers, crosses, etc., which were stored in one place with the hope that one day they will come back, just like families who buried their gold in the hope that one day they will return. Such treasure come out in one or two places, when the old buildings were destroyed to build new ones. Such treasure was found in one or two places, and people think all the churches have treasures.

-And they damage the church, is that so?

– The damage is done to the church. As if this was not enough, we have also witnessed how they build houses with the church stones. If you take a walk in the villages, you’ll see Armenian letters on the walls of the houses. They are ignorant people who do not care whether it’s a church or something else. They will even destroy mosques.

-Your Eminence, we know that you have good connections with the ruling Justice and Development party and treat each other with respect. Do you contact them with these matters, for ensuring preservation and preventing damage to churches?

-Yes, I have repeatedly contacted the Ministry of Culture, and they say they are not able to manage all the churches. They reconstructed Aghtamar and gave us the opportunity to celebrate mass once a year. Nothing was done in Ani, which garners global interest.  Not a single step is taken. As stated in our calendar, there were 2170 churches in Turkey before 1914.

-What kind of assistance do they expect from Armenia?

-Not financial. Assistance to ensure that the “original” architectural style is preserved and mistakes are not made. But they say they have financial issues. Millions of dollars are needed to reconstruct those churches. I had applied for financial assistance for the reconstruction of Tigranakert Church, because it is simultaneously a treasure for the country. They could not be of any assistance, so we turned to our community and our children in the Diaspora. With their help we raised around 4 million dollars and were able to reconstruct the church. However, we have a debt of 700,000 dollars. We did not receive any assistance from the state in this matter. Unfortunately, the churches are deteriorating day by day, or they are disappearing. We are glad when a church is turned into mosque — at least it remains a place of prayer.

-At least it’s not a barn.

-Yes, yes. You know what is interesting? People come to me with intention of selling a church. They claim that the church is theirs.

-Are they Turks?

-Yes, Turks from the villages.

-The Turks want to sell you Armenian churches.

-They have a certificate of ownership, according to which the church belongs to them.

-When do these documents date back to?

-Twenty-thirty years. I asked the Minister of Culture how could an individual become the owner of my church, when I am not even the owner of myself? I was told that if they have been watching over the church, even if it that entails keeping their animals there, they have the right to demand its ownership by paying a small sum.

-That is, the Turkish state has given the Armenian church as a gift.

-Yes, not to me, but to them.

-Will these issues be solved, Your Eminence?

-I believe they will be solved, but it will take more time.

-Should the Armenians be more demanding or should the government realize that the church belongs to the Armenians and thus be returned to them?

-The state will not say, “Dear friend, let us give you this church.” We have to demand it, but I do not demand all the churches. What should I do with them? I don’t have enough people, how can I keep a church in a province? Today we have one church in Caesarea (Kayseri), two in Tigranakert, one is in ruins, and we barely managed to reconstruct the other and are still in debt.

-That is, you lack sufficient clergy or is it because of a lack of finances?

-We lack everything. I don’t even have the resources to keep a sexton there, I don’t have the money. Suppose I was given 2000 churches, and I die. I will not be able to keep them. Take a look at Armenia, there are churches and monasteries in need of renovation, and the the state can not do it.

-From what you have said, I understand the following: Armenians all over the world, in the Diaspora, Istanbul, and Armenia, demand their churches be returned, but we have no plans in case they are returned. For example, today, if we were to receive them, we would not know what to do.

-We will also leave them to be ruined. Perhaps we will renovate three of four famous churches, but will leave the rest to die — they are already dead. For example, for the church of Tigranakert, we turned to the Netherlands, the United States, France.

-Were you not able to raise the funds?

-We were not able to raise 4 million dollars and are still in debt, How shall I guard these churches? How shall I renovate them? Some will say let the state renovate them, but if it does and gives to me, I will not be able to manage to sustain them. It is not possible, I have no clergy, no people.

-You have no community.

-By saying people, I mean the community. Who will sustain them? Who will take care of them?

-In any case, let’s hope the Turkish government returns, and we will somehow try to sustain them.

-For example, I have demanded the church in Sebastia and I hope it will be returned soon, because we have 60-70 Armenians there. People from Sebastia came to me and said they wanted to demand the church, and I said only if they elect a local council, that is, a committee which will take care of the church. They said they will. So we have requested it, and have not received a negative answer, so I hope they will return the church in a few months.

– Your Eminence, do you discuss these matters with the Armenian Ministry of Culture when you visit Armenia? Do you expect their assistance as well?

-Did the Ministry of Culture “look for me” to discuss these matters?

-You don’t have a “healthy” relationship.

-It’s not me who should turn to them. If they care and are interested in our cultural wealth, they should contact me and ask me for my ideas. For example, in the case of the Syrian Armenians, when Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan contacted me to inquire what was being done for them, I provided her that information.

-That is, when necessary, they can establish communication with you, there are  no obstacles.

-Yes, when it’s necessary.

-We were able to understand Armenia’s case; what about the Diaspora? Large communities like those in USA, Canada, or the Istanbul Armenians that are currently in the USA, do they keep in touch with you?

-Yes, they do. There is the Organization of Istanbul Armenians in the USA, which keeps in touch with us. Certainly, those who understand that the Patriarchate is the center and all issues must be solved through it, turn to us. Others act on their own, without our consent, and it eventually becomes a headache for us.

-Your Eminence, thank you very much for the interesting interview.

-Thank you, too.

Շաբաթ, 24 մայիս, 2014


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