Friday, September 28, 2007

Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul Takes on Politics of Genocide

Volume 73, No. 39, September 29, 2007
Armenian Weekly, MA
By George Shirinian

“…I find in particular the approach of Ittihat Terakki’s 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.”

“…But the Government of the Committee for Union and Progress, being in charge of the country, is chiefly responsible for the painful events that occurred and the great suffering that was endured. If you do not hold the government in charge of the behavior of the country as responsible for that behavior, then whom will you hold responsible? Instead of eliminating in their local areas the armed Armenian factions who were in rebellion, the Government of the Committee for Union and Progress sent all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire on a sort of death march to the Syrian Desert; it sentenced them to death. Therefore this party is chiefly culpable for the 1915 events.”


These words come from Mesrob II, Patriarch of the Armenian community of Turkey, in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman on Sept. 17, and quoted in an editorial by Harut Sassounian on Sept. 20.

Why is the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey involving himself in such a highly politicized issue as the Armenian genocide? Doesn’t he know that whatever he may say or do publicly regarding this emotionally charged subject will never be considered strong enough by some Armenians in the diaspora, and that he will be perceived by many as a tool of the Turkish state? At the same time, doesn’t he know that he will always be considered with suspicion by nationalistic elements of Turkish society, simply because he is an Armenian leader?

The purpose of this commentary is not to advocate any position, but merely to raise questions in an attempt to understand what is happening and its implications.

Why the Today’s Zaman interview now? According to Zaman, the paper had been trying to interview the Patriarch unsuccessfully since before Hrant Dink’s death. He declined then and continued to do so because of the many threats he received. Did he accept to be interviewed now because of the recent election, from which the AKP is flush with victory? Did he do so because of his concern to improve relations between the newly re-elected government and Turkish society with the Armenian minority? Did he do so because of his concern to improve relations between Turkey and Armenia, as part of that?

Why take this risk now? Is he not aware that he may be dragged into the courts on the basis of Penal Code Article 301? After all, it is well known that the Armenian Patriarch operates under considerable constraints, due to the social and political environment in Turkey being so explosive, particularly as a result of the legacy of the genocide and the notorious Article 301.

Is he not aware of the current political environment in Turkey, eloquently described by Yavuz Baydar in an article titled “Free speech hell, hate speech paradise?”:

“Turkey is a peculiar country where free speech is still limited and hate speech goes mostly unpunished and ignored. The latest act of shame was the song video posted on YouTube that openly praises the murder of our colleague, Hrant Dink. As we brought attention to the act in the Turkish press, reactions of the singer and some supporters were not of defensiveness but of aggression. This is the mood that still prevails, despite the election results, in Turkey. Not a day passes without a newspaper or TV channel spreading hatred, lies, anti-Semitism and enmity of certain countries/nations. A few days ago, a sports columnist called a German footballer ‘Gestapo.’

“The sad part is, while the prosecutors and courts (including the higher courts) are busy and keen on sentencing people who ‘denigrate Turkishness’ or ‘insult the military,’ almost none of them care (or dare) to deal with hate speech cases. DTP deputy Akýn Birdal was almost murdered because of hate reports by daily Hurriyet; the Armenian Patriarchate was stoned and steadily threatened as daily Tercuman portrayed Mesrob II—the patriarch—as a villain, even after Dink’s murder! These acts of shame have been going on for years.’’ (Today’s Zaman, Sept. 20)

Is it the case, as Harut Sassounian wrote, that “…the sinister hand of the Turkish government [is] orchestrating the Patriarch’s speaking engagements, using the connections of high-powered lobbying firms hired by Ankara,” and that “He must at all cost resist the pressures exerted upon him by Turkish officials, in order not to allow them to use him as a propaganda tool serving Turkey’s denialist agenda”?

Is the Patriarch a tool, and if so, is it by force or by choice? Is it possible that some of his remarks were part of a strategy to help break down state taboos over discussion of the Armenian genocide, as a part of the democratization process of Turkey, like Hrant Dink used to do? Were these carefully considered statements from an individual in his prominent and precarious position utilizing “a change in the style and modalities of discourses dealing with history,” as Taner Akcam put it? (see “Dialogue across an International Divide: Essays towards a Turkish-Armenian Dialogue,” Cambridge, Mass., and Toronto: Zoryan Institute, 2001, p. 28.)

Is there a chance that this interview is part of a strategy to open up discussion on taboo Armenian issues? This could be in keeping with an important principle: “A society that erects taboos against a discussion of historical events and institutes related prohibitions can not have a democratic future. The road to achieving a state based on law and justice, which we wish to be the case for our country, Turkey, must pass through a gate where one can ponder and come to terms with one’s past. Those who can not bring themselves to discuss history openly, can not have a future, either.” (Akcam, p. 29.)

Could one consider the questions above as possibilities when analyzing some of the Patriarch’s other statements in that interview?

When asked if he thought the investigation into the murder of Hrant Dink had been conducted thoroughly, he stated, “I’d like the real perpetrators behind this crime to be found. Otherwise justice won’t be served.”

Without pointing fingers or making direct accusations, did he in effect answer “No?”

Was the Patriarch, in his efforts to preserve the future of the Armenian community in Turkey, trying to assert the historic rights of the Patriarchate (granted originally by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, as the interviewer notes) by (a) calling for the restoration of assets seized by the state since 1936, (b) pointing out that the former president vetoed religious foundations* and expressing the hope that the new president will approve them, and (c) calling for schools to develop clerics and the Armenian language?

If this was his objective, then why get mixed up in the genocide issue?

One wonders if Patriarch Mesrob II is using the interview in Today’s Zaman as an opportunity to highlight his primary concern and responsibility for the survival and welfare of what is left of the Armenian community in Turkey. Is it fair to assume, then, that (a) he is using this opportunity to introduce a new language to educate Turkish civil society about the Armenian genocide, by referring to it as “collective punishment” and a death sentence for all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, without using the “G-word,” and (b) he is doing this with the hope that, ultimately, the Turkish state, government and society are able to accept the culpability of the Committee for Union and Progress, the perpetrator regime, and through such acceptance eliminate the tension, which has been menacing the Armenian community since 1915?

It seems that through the interview, the Patriarch raises serious questions regarding the rights of the Armenian community in Turkey. These rights are seldom discussed in the Diaspora, while they are vital to the Armenian community in Turkey. By referring to them, the Patriarch not only re-affirms them, but also contributes to the current efforts to transform Turkey into a legal, rational state that should have an inclusive approach to its minorities.

It is incumbent on all of us—Armenians, Turks and others—to read critically and with an open mind what a person in the Patriarch’s circumstances says. It is by asking such questions as those raised in this text that we can promote rational public debate. This has been one of the main goals of the Zoryan Institute from its inception.

*Religious foundations refers to the General Directorate for Foundations, which regulates the activities of non-Muslim religious groups and their affiliated churches, monasteries, synagogues and related religious property, including approximately 50 Armenian sites. In 1974, amid political tensions over Cyprus, the High Court of Appeals ruled that the minority foundations had no right to acquire properties beyond those listed in the 1936 declarations. Unfortunately, the court’s ruling launched a process under which the state seized control of properties acquired after 1936.

George Shirinian is executive director of the Zoryan Institute.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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