Posted 05 June 2007 - 12:56 AM
What Motivates Patriarch
Mesrob's Political Rhetoric?
By Harut Sassounian
The California Courier
It is not always easy to figure out what prompts the Armenian Patriarch of
Constantinople (Istanbul), Mesrob II, to make at times conflicting and
Those familiar with the oppressive conditions within Turkey understand full
well that the Patriarch and his flock are hostages in the hands of the Turkish
government. Consequently, it is clear that some of his statements are made
under coercion and duress.
In April, when the Patriarch flew to Dallas to participate in a politically
tendentious conference organized by a Turkish group, Archbishop Khajag
Barsamian, the Primate of the Eastern (U.S.) Diocese, issued a press release
expressing his opposition to this one-sided "Armenian-Turkish dialogue." The Primate
said that the Patriarch "has a very limited ability to freely express his true
thoughts and concerns because of oppressive Turkish free-speech laws."
Furthermore, in a letter dated April 12, 2007, to Dr. Gerald R. Turner, the
President of Southern Methodist University, Primate Barsamian rightly described
the Patriarch as "a virtual 'prisoner of conscience' of the Turkish
government." Abp. Barsamian, who is originally from Turkey, knows well the situation of
the Armenian community in Istanbul. His letter prompted the University to
cancel its sponsorship of the conference.
However, not all of the Patriarch's political statements and actions are
dictated by the Turkish government. Knowing what is expected of him, the Patriarch
sometimes, without even being asked by Ankara, makes statements that he knows
will please his Turkish masters. By doing so, he may be hoping that he would
be in the good graces of Turkish officials, leading to the reduction of the
government's oppressive measures toward the local Armenian community.
In his dealings with Turkish officials, the Patriarch may exploit the
Armenian Diaspora's opposition to his pro-Turkish stance by telling the government
that he risks losing all credibility unless genuine concessions are made to
improve the conditions of the Armenian community.
At times, the Patriarch's actions completely baffle the Armenian public both
within and outside Turkey. A couple of years ago, he disappeared from the
Patriarchate for several weeks without any notice or explanation of his
whereabouts. Despite the fact that Istanbul Armenians are fervently devoted to their
church and clerical leadership, many members of his flock are not too pleased
with his idiosyncrasies. He has publicly feuded with Catholicos Karekin II as
well as the publishers of the local Armenian press, including Hrant Dink, the
recently assassinated editor of Agos newspaper. Those who disagree with him
describe the 51-year-old Patriarch as "highly intelligent, but brash."
Which of the foregoing three explanations account for the Patriarch's recent
statement on the Armenian Genocide? During a meeting with a U.S. congressional
delegation at the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul on May 30, the Patriarch
told the visiting Members of Congress: "From the perspective of both
Turkish-Armenia bilateral relations, and relations between the Armenians of Turkey and
the Turkish public, we are not positive about the Armenian Genocide Bill
before the US Congress. But we also don't deny historical facts. The position taken
by the Party of Unity and Progress in punishing all Armenians of Turkey, and
not just those Armenian groups who had taken up arms against the government,
can never be forgiven. One and a half million Armenian citizens perished in the
deserts of Syria, and today in our country there are only 70,000 Armenians.
It should also not be forgotten that at the time of the deportation our ethnic
Armenian citizens said they were Muslims in order to be saved from banishment.
They still speak Armenian and live the Armenian culture, and we count them as
part of us even if their religion is different."
Despite the fact that the Patriarch knew full well that the Turkish
government and various Turkish ultra-nationalist groups would strongly object to his
statement that 1.5 million Armenians were killed, he went ahead and posted his
remarks in Turkish and English on the Patriarchate's official website. Not
surprisingly, several Turkish denialists immediately criticized him and questioned
his facts on the Genocide.
It is not clear why the Patriarch chose to make such candid remarks to the
congressional delegation and then proceeded to make them public? Could this be
his way of retaliating against the Turkish government's lack of responsiveness
to his repeated pleas on behalf of the local Armenian community? In recent
years, the Patriarch has said and done many things in support of Turkish
interests, including his energetic lobbying on behalf of Turkey's application for
membership to the European Union, without receiving anything in return to better
the lot of his people.
The Turkish government should recognize that the Western world automatically
dismisses the Patriarch's pro-Turkish efforts and statements, knowing full
well that they are made under pressure. In fact, each time that the Turkish
government forces the Patriarch to denounce the recognition of Armenian Genocide by
foreign parliaments, Ankara inadvertently reconfirms the autocratic nature of
Diaspora Armenians must realize that if they want the Patriarch to play a
more assertive role in defending Armenian interests, they should then develop
sufficient political clout in Washington and other capitals in order to protect
him and his community from any potential harm from Turkish hardliners. For
example, the Chief Rabbi of Turkey knows that the Turkish leaders would not dare
touch him or members of the Jewish community because there would rightfully be
a powerful backlash from Israel, the United States and practically every
European country. Can the Armenian government and the Armenian Diaspora provide a
similar assurance to the Armenian Patriarch?
Meanwhile, there is no question that the Patriarch Mesrob II knows how to
gauge Turkey's domestic political mood better than his detractors living abroad.
Under the current situation of resurgent Turkish nationalism, the Patriarch
may well adopt a hands-off posture by telling government officials that as a
religious leader he can only make pronouncements on spiritual issues and abstain
from involvement in political matters.