Turkey’s Christian Armenian population was almost wiped out during the early 20th century. Over 1.5 million Armenians were massacred for their Christian faith in a violent wave of genocide that the modern Turkish government continues to deny. Although the Armenian Genocide happened over 100 years ago, its implications are clearly felt by the few remaining Armenians as they navigate all aspects of Turkish society.
Today, the Armenian Church is a Church held hostage. The government heavily interferes in Armenian Church governance and continues to publicly degrade Christians.
Just as Rome has the Vatican, Istanbul serves as the spiritual center for all Orthodox churches, including for Armenian Christians. Orthodox leadership is being controlled by a hostile Turkish government. As a result, Turkey is interfering in the spiritual practice of over 260 million Christians across every continent.
This past March, the Armenian Patriarch, Mesrob II Mutafyan, died after entering into a mysterious coma over a decade ago. He was a vocal critic of Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and restrictions on their daily lives. The coma silenced him—and the Church. Mesrob II could no longer fulfil his spiritual role, and Turkey prohibited the Church from electing a new leader on the grounds that he was still alive.
“The AKP government (has) clearly intervened directly in church law and traditions, saying, ‘You cannot choose your patriarch,’” editorialized Agos, an Armenian newspaper.
Soon after Mesrob II’s passing, President Erdoğan’s AK Party lost control of Istanbul for the first time in 25 years. Erdoğan demanded an election rerun, and promised the Armenians a quick patriarchal election immediately after. Three months later, Erdoğan again lost Istanbul, and the Armenian Church still has no spiritual leader.
Historically, the fate of the Turkish government and the Armenian Church have always intertwined. Turks are taught from a young age that Armenians are their country’s enemies. As one explained, “During the Turkish War of Independence, we fought against lots of countries and some bishops blessed the enemies of the Turks. That’s why people started to hate Christianity.”
Erdoğan has even said that the Armenian genocide “was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period.”
He constantly reinforces the belief that Armenians are less than human. In 2014, Erdoğan told an interviewer, “I was called a Georgian. I apologize for this, but they even said [something] worse: They called me an Armenian.”
Although a distinct ethnic group, Armenians have centered their lives around the Church. Christianity is just as much their identity as their ethnicity. Delaying the patriarchal election has serious consequences. The Church is unable to deal with its existing problems as a result, leading to division, conflict, restless youth, and feelings of hopelessness. Church morale is low in Istanbul.
After the patriarch’s death, many hoped for spiritual rejuvenation within the Church. Instead, hope was suppressed. Erdoğan again lost Istanbul, and the election process for the Armenian Church was yet again paused.
On July 4, Bishop Mashalyan was elected as a new temporary patriarch, but no steps have been taken to select a permanent patriarch, as of the time of writing in July. The government stands as a barricade to spiritual rejuvenation for the Church.
Turkey has made it clear: the Armenian Church is their hostage, but not their only captive. Orthodox Christianity centers here. The New Testament was written here. Turkey makes every effort to prohibit effective Christian leadership, with devastating consequences.