Newly-Elected Patriarch of Turkey Lashes Back at his Armenian Critics

Harut Sassounian

After giving a series of interviews to the Turkish press since his election on December 11, 2019, the new Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, Sahak II Mashalyan, responded to his Armenian critics on January 15, 2020, by issuing an official “Clarification” to Turkish-Armenian newspapers.

It is important to point out that the Patriarch’s critics were not simply those who live outside Turkey, unjustly accused of being unaware of the repressive treatment of Istanbul Armenians by the Turkish government. In addition to criticisms from Armenians in Armenia and the Diaspora, the Patriarch was attacked by Armenians living in Turkey as well as the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos.

The Patriarch’s interview to the Turkish newspaper Aksham generated the most controversy as he not only distanced Istanbul Armenians from Diaspora Armenians, but also belittled the massive tragedy of the Armenian Genocide. His Beatitude complained that a few of the sentences in his interview with Aksham, drawing the most negative interpretations and exceeding the limits of understanding, reached a campaign of tarnishing his name.

The Patriarch made the excuse that in his 40-minute interview, he “had provided lengthy explanations and details which naturally were not included in the article. The words appearing in the newspaper were filtered from those explanations which were given as answers for a particular question. That style was the choice of the editor. Without considering the questions, when only answers are provided, a change in the meaning takes place, which is placed successively, one after another. In this case, they become unclear expressions and failed statements, which make the transmitted idea meaningless.”

The Patriarch then stated that he had given the following answer to the question about Turkish Armenians: “Armenians of Turkey, unlike Armenians in the Diaspora and Armenia, form a third segment. From the point of view of administration and economy, the Armenian Diaspora has no ties with us; we are self-sufficient.”

When his Beatitude was asked about the irreconcilable attitude of Diaspora Armenians toward Turkey and the reasons for its negative position, he claimed that the given answer does not belong to him, but is a simple sociological correction—familiar to all—expressed as such: ‘One hundred years ago, the people who left these lands with a great tragedy have transmitted the trauma they lived to future generations and realized that for the Armenian identity and its preservation it is beneficial and necessary to form a consciousness of the Genocide. They continued to live for more than a hundred years in a status quo away from Turkey and Turks. But, we—Armenians who have remained in Turkey—continued to share our lives with Turks in these lands and gained the experience of living together. In that sense, we are distinct Armenians in the Armenian world.”

The Patriarch continued: “In such super sensitive subjects, the priority of the people has been that they listen to what they want, and not what the Patriarchs of Turkish Armenians say and under what conditions. The fate of the Armenian Patriarchs of Turkey is like the captain of a ship that is being crushed between two non-melting icebergs. In that circumstance, it is not always possible to secure harmony and errors appear to occur according to one of the sides. Sahak Patriarch too, like his predecessors, has tried to give answers regarding Armenian issues that are satisfactory to all sides. It is never acceptable to any of the sides to take a rejectionist and disregarding position. Each person must first understand correctly, what in reality has been expressed in the uttered words and then criticize.”

Some in the Diaspora may agree with the Patriarch’s words, emphasizing the dire conditions that he and the Turkish community are in. Any Armenian who is familiar with those repressive conditions can be somewhat sympathetic to the Patriarch’s situation.

Our intent was never to urge the Patriarch to antagonize the authorities in Turkey. After all, he is responsible for the safety of his community. All we ask from the Patriarch is to be cautious in his words, not to alienate his followers in Turkey and not insult the memory of 1.5 million Armenian martyrs by engaging in outright denialism. Whenever possible, the Patriarch should avoid giving interviews to the Turkish press. He should appoint a press spokesman who is capable of avoiding difficult and sensitive questions, particularly on political issues. If the spokesman makes a mistake, it is less consequential than if the Patriarch himself makes a mistake. Spokesmen can be fired, but the Patriarch’s position is life-long.

Finally, it is unacceptable for the Patriarch to blame the Turkish newspaper for allegedly misinterpreting his words. First of all, we do not know what exactly the Patriarch told the Turkish newspaper and if it was really misinterpreted. For example, in his above “Clarification,” the Patriarch claims that he had used the word “Genocide” in his interview with the Turkish newspaper. This is not credible!

Secondly, the Patriarch is someone who is born and raised in Istanbul. He knows the Turkish media well. He should have known that the Turkish press often distorts the words of those they interview. Therefore, giving an interview to the Turkish press and then complaining that his words were distorted is not sincere. The Patriarch should have known that in advance. Complaining about Turkish media distortions after the interview is published is foolish!

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