Mesrob II: Diaspora Deaf To Turkish Armenians (1)

Yonca Poyraz Dogan

Turquie Europeenne, France
Sept 24 2007

"The ‘Armenian genocide resolution’ pending in the US Congress disrupts
both the relations between Turkish people and Armenians in Turkey
and between Turkey and Armenia," said Patriarch Mesrob II (Mutafyan),
the spiritual leader of Turkey’s Armenian Orthodox community.

"We had big problems in the past. I especially find the approach of
the Ýttihat Terakki’s (the Committee of Union and Progress) collective
punishment of Armenians quite wrong. It wasn’t the whole Armenian
community who took up arms against the government, but I believe the
Turkish Republic should not be accused of what happened then. The
diaspora would say that it should be accused as long as there is a
denial of what happened," Mesrob II said.

Armenians claim up to 1.5 million of their kinsmen died in a genocide
campaign by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, but Ankara
rejects the charge, saying both Armenians and Turks died in civil
strife when the Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern
Anatolia, siding with Russian troops that were invading the crumbling
Ottoman Empire.

There is currently a non-binding "Armenian genocide resolution"
pending at the US Congress. "We are the ones here living with our
Turkish friends everyday. The resolution’s passage would have a
cooling effect on our relations," Mesrob II said, adding that the
diaspora doesn’t care about Turkish Armenians’ sensitivities and that
"it’s a political issue for them."

Turkish Armenians are the biggest Christian community in Turkey with
approximately 70,000 people living in Anatolia. Mesrob II said that
since they lack schools of theology, the number of clerics is only
26 and bringing religious services to the community is tough.

For Monday Talk, Mesrob II told Today’s Zaman that the Armenian
community hasn’t been represented in the Turkish Parliament,
even though some of them have been interested in politics. The
community’s attitude toward the Justice and Development Party (AK
Party) is generally positive, and the main reason behind this is
the "aggressive attitude" of the Republican People’s Party (CHP),
especially regarding the law of foundations.

As the Turkish-Armenian religious leader, Mesrob II has a different
stance from that of some Turkish circles regarding the secularism
debates. "I don’t think that secularism is under threat in Turkey.

Secularism has been so entrenched in the society since the time
of Ataturk that I don’t think anybody will be able to remove it,"
he stated.

We’ve been trying to interview Mesrob II since Today’s Zaman was
founded on Jan. 16, but due to some unfortunate events – such as the
Jan. 19 assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of the Turkish-Armenian
weekly newspaper Agos, we were unable to until now. The Patriarchate
closed its doors to the media then after receiving many threats.

Nevertheless, the patriarch started to open up recently and discuss
the Turkish-Armenian community’s problems more.

For Monday Talk, we had a sincere interview with the patriarch,
ranging from politics to his personal life, beliefs and hobbies.

Could you talk about your childhood, your neighborhood, your education?

I was born in Ýstanbul in Tarlabaþý on Yoðurtcu Faik Street. We had
Muslims, Jews, Greeks and Armenians in the neighborhood. Everybody knew
everybody else’s important religious celebrations. We had wonderful
days having many celebrations together, especially on holidays. I grew
up in the Taksim neighborhood around Talimhane, where Taksim square
is. I went to the Esayan Armenian school in Taksim. I continued my
education at the Ýstanbul English High School for Boys. Later I went
to the Stuttgart American College in Germany.

In the United States, I went to the Memphis State University to
study sociology. Then to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, then to
Angelicum University in Rome, Italy and finally got my doctorate at
St. Mary’s University in Washington.

How did you benefit from studying sociology?

I was able to understand people better.

Did you decided to study theology then?

No. I decided to study theology later after I had an accident in the
United States. I was supposed to die but I survived. I lost my best
friend in that accident. After that, I felt like I re-started life
and dedicated myself to religion.

Why do you fast during Ramadan?

Otherwise I’d feel guilty at the time of the iftar (the evening
fast-breaking meal).

Why would you feel guilty?

If I participate in the iftar with others who fasted all day, not
having fasted myself, I feel guilty.

Do you fast throughout the month of Ramadan or just when you are
invited for iftar?

Fasting is also a Christian practice, so I do not have any problem
fasting throughout the month of Ramadan. It also helps to bring my
Turkish friends and me closer together.

Do you have fond memories of Ramadan?

I was in a village called Kýyýkoy in Kýrklareli in 1974 at the time
of Ramadan. Together with the villagers, I would get up for sahur
(a small meal eaten before dawn; the final meal before the day’s fast
begins). This is a fond memory for me.

What is a typical day for you?

Among the patriarch’s duties is inspection of the churches and
attending liturgies at churches. I attend to my appointments.

Do you have hobbies?

I like traveling.

Where do you like to go most?

Jerusalem. I try to go there once a year. In Turkey I like to go
along the Bosporus. One of the places I like most is Kýyýkoy. I also
like Mersin.

Do you watch television?

I usually watch news on TV.

Don’t you watch any of the hundreds of television series?

I watch "Yeþeren Duþler" (Revived Dreams)."

Why do you like that series?

It is about real life in a small village where one family tries to
domineer over the others. It is a real life situation.

How many patriarchates are there in the world?

In the world there are 23 patriarchs. In the Armenian church, there
are four patriarchates, the first one is in Armenia and the others
are in Lebanon, Jerusalem and Ýstanbul.

Are there different levels or are you all equal?

The Catholicosate in Armenia comes first. All others are autonomous.

We don’t meddle in each others’ affairs much.

A Muslim leader, Mehmed the Conqueror, founded the Patriarchate in
Ýstanbul in 1461. What is the significance of this?

The founding of the Armenian Patriarchate in Ýstanbul is unique. It
marks the first time in history that a Muslim sultan established a
Christian center. It’s quite positive for inter-religious dialogue.

What are the Turkish-Armenian community’s feelings toward the new

The community’s attitude toward the AK Party is generally positive.

One of the main reasons behind this is CHP’s aggressive attitude,
especially regarding the law on foundations. Because of this our
community tends to support the AK Party.

Are there Armenians interested in politics, interested in being
candidates perhaps?

Yes, there have been a few people.

Would they be interested in becoming independent candidates or be
under the umbrella of a party?

Most of them tend to support the AK Party.

If the AK Party had approached them, would they have entered politics?

They might have.

Have there been any Armenian members of Parliament in the history of
the republic?

I know one who was a school principal, indeed my principal, at the
Esayan school that I went to. Her name was Hermine Kalustyan.

Do you remember what year and from which political party?

I think from the CHP. The year escapes my memory.

What could have changed if there was an Armenian member of Parliament?

First of all we would have been represented. No members of any minority
groups – be it Jews, Armenians or Greeks – have been represented in
Parliament, even though it is our Parliament too.

To be continued…

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Who is Mesrob II? Mesrob II became the 84th patriarch of Turkey’s
Armenian Orthodox community in 1998 after Patriarch Karekin II passed
away. Mesrob II studied theology in 1979-1982 at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem in Israel. He held several positions in Turkey’s churches
including bishop, chairman of the Religious Council, patriarchal
vicar for Ecumenical Affairs, overseer of the Theological Auditorium,
vice-president of the Patriarchal Advisory Council and archbishop. He
is the editor-in-chief of the Shoghagat Theological Review. He has
academically worked on the "Vanakan Vartabed’s Commentary of Davoush
on the Book of Job." He is bilingual in Turkish and English and uses
classical Armenian, Hebrew, French and Italian in his academic studies.



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