Tomorrow, December 11, 2019, delegates from the Armenian Apostolic churches in Turkey will elect the 85th Patriarch of Istanbul (Constantinople), the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Turkey. This past Sunday, all eligible members of the Armenian Apostolic Church across Turkey—mostly in Istanbul, but also at churches in Diyarbakir and the Hatay province, among other places—elected 102 lay delegates. The number of delegates is set for each parish based on the size of the congregation. On December 7, 17 clerical/religious delegates were elected. Both the lay and clerical delegates will meet tomorrow to officially elect the next Patriarch. While the results are not set in stone, because the lay delegates are elected according to a list or slate for the two remaining candidates, the likely outcome is already known. On December 9, 12 candidates were elected to the “Purple List” representing Archbishop Aram Ateşyan and 89 candidates were elected to the “Orange List” representing Bishop Sahak Maşalyan.
The election of the 85th Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul is a momentous occasion, not the least because of the protracted illness of the previous Patriarch, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan. Unable to carry out his duties since 2008 until his death earlier this year on March 8, Patriarch Mutafyan continued as Patriarch in name, while Archbishop Ateşyan, as Patriarchal Vicar, conducted the daily business of the Patriarchate for over a decade. This is not the place to rehearse the long struggle to elect a Patriarch while Patriarch Mutafyan was alive but unable to perform his duties, the unsuccessful attempt last year to finally begin the election process, or even the unlawful further restriction on the number of eligible candidates by the Turkish government. All of these contemporary political issues continue to unfold. Despite the calls by some to boycott the elections because of the restrictions placed on them, the end to the decade-long period of limbo and the election of a new Patriarch is cause for celebration.
Rather than discuss these current, ongoing, and highly political issues, today we will take a brief look at the history of this institution of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul)/Պատրիարքութիւն Հայոց Կոստանդնուպոլսոյ. First, we should ask about the idea of a Patriarch or Patriarchate at all. In the Armenian Apostolic Church, a bishop, who traditionally was always the head of a diocese, is elevated from the ranks of celibate clergy. You can read about the position of the bishop in the Armenian Apostolic Church here, including the evolution of the bishop from a married position to a celibate one, and to the expansion of the episcopate to include adminstrative functions and honorific positions other than explicitly being the chief shepherd of a jurisdiction known as a diocese. From the rank of bishop, those who reside in particularly important sees (the place from which a diocese is headquartered) or who have served for a very long time are given the largely honorific title of archbishop. In other ancient Christian churches, and in the early Christian church of the fourth and fifth centuries, those bishops residing in especially important places were known as Patriarchs. During the time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD), the five of the most important Christian sees were given pride of place in what was known as the Pentarchy. The heads of these five sees—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—became known as Patriarchs. So, a Patriarch has always been a term reserved for bishops serving as the head of particuarly important jurisdictions. Patriarch is the term used for many of the leaders of autocephalous churches. For instance, the chief bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who resides in Istanbul, is known as the Ecumenical Patriarch.
In the Armenian Apstolic Church, this practice of recognizing special sees that were nonetheless not the see of the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church, developed over time. First, the head of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem, the Holy City at the center of the economy of Christian salvation and thus clearly an exceptionally important place, became known as the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Later, after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and when more Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire than anywhere else, the bishop of the capitol of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, was also recognized as a Patriarch. In the Armenian Apostolic Church, these two Patriarchates, important sees of the Armenian Church, are recgonized as having pride of place among all the dioceses of the Armenian Church, and only the two Catholicosates (in Etchmiadzin, the see of the Catholicos of All Armenians, and in Antelias, the see of the Catholicos of the See of Cilicia) are even more important administrative and religious centers.
|Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire||Edited by Braude and Lewis, this is still the most comprehensive volume on the millet concept and the Armenian Patriarchate in English. It includes the chapters by Benjamin Braude and Kevork B. Bardakjian.|
|Azgayin sahmanatrut‘iwn hayots‘ Nizamnamēi millēt‘i ērmēnian||The “Armenian National Constitution” promulgated in 1863. The Zohrab Information Center has an original 1863 printing. In both Armenian and Armeno-Turkish.|
|Negotiating the Ottoman Constitution||This recent book by Aylin Koçunyan details the process of the promulgation of the Ottoman Constitution in 1876. It includes an illuminating section on the “Armenian National Constitution” accepted by the Sultan in 1863. This Constitution codified the position of the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople.|
On May 29, 1453, Constantinople, capitol of the Byzantine Empire, fell to the Ottoman army under the command of Sultan Mehmed II, who would thereafter been known as “Fatih,” the conqueror. What was left of the Byzantine Empire fell, and the Ottoman Empire now controlled territory from the Balkans to eastern Anatolia, including the Armenian highlands, the centuries-old home of the Armenian people, and Cilicia, where the last Armenian Kingdom had existed. In other words, the Ottoman Empire now ruled over most Armenians. While Armenians had long lived in Constantinople and in parts of the Byzantine Empire, the population of Armenians in Istanbul also increased during the years of Ottoman rule. This was largely due to the fact that now huge portions of the Armenian homeland were all controlled by the same political entity, the Ottoman Empire. Some Armenians were forcibly resettled from borderlands to Istanbul, while the freedom of movement within the empire led many to move for economic reasons to the capitol. Yet from the very beginning of Ottoman control of Istanbul a huge population of Armenians lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
According to traditional history, first explicitly articulated by the great Mkhitarist historian Michael Chamchian and affirmed by the once-Patriarch of Constantinople Malachia Ormanian in his magnum opus of Armenian history, the Azkabadum, the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul was created within the lifetime of Mehmed the Conqueror. Recognizing the need to centralize authority over “the Armenians of Greece and Anatolia” he brought Bishop Hovagim of Bursa to Istanbul in 1461 and named him Patriarch (Chamchian, quoted in Bardakjian 1982:89). From 1461 on, the Bishop of Istanbul was known as a Patriarch, and was in charge of all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Many authors have questioned this traditional narrative. First and foremost, in 1461 in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, there were Catholicoi in both Sis and Aghtamar, meaning that were technically two clergymen who “outranked” the Patriarch of Istanbul. More fundamentally, the centralized vision of Ottoman power the traditional narrative depends on simply doesn’t exist. According to the traditional narrative, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul was the head of the Armenian millet, a recognized ethno-religious non-Muslim community in the Ottoman domains. In an important article called “Foundation Myths of the Millet System,” Benjamin Braude debunks the idea that such a millet system existed in any systematic way before the sweeping Ottoman reforms of the nineteenth century known as the Tanzimat. Likewise, Kevork B. Bardakjian traces the slow growth of the authority of the bishop in Istanbul. In this history of the Istanbul Patriarchate, an Armenian bishop did reside in Istanbul from very early in the years of the Ottoman Empire, but he was not so clearly in charge of all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Instead, over time, as Ottoman power was centralized, something like an actual “millet system” developed, and the authority of the Armenian bishop in Istanbul extended, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul emerged as the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Ottoman Empire in the way the traditional narrative suggests.
The endpoint of this long development was the establishment of the so-called “Armenian National Constitution.” Adopted in 1860 and approved by the Sultan in 1863, the Ազգային Սահմանադրութիւն Հայոց/Azgayin Sahmandrutiwn Hayots codified the relations between the elements of the Armenian population. Crucially, as Bardakjian points out, while this “constitution” “restricted the patriarch’s power within the community” it also, for the very first time, explicitly “recognized him as the sole representative of the entire Armenian population of the empire” (1982:96). The Armenian National Constitution also created lay and clerical councils, allowing for an early representative and parliamentary experiment in the Ottoman Empire. This Armenian National Constitution, though not fully in effect today, continues to shape the organization of Armenians in the Republic of Turkey. For instance, the Spiritual Council that elected the 17 clerical delegates is a descendant of the clerical council created by the Constitution. Though the lay council has not been in existence for some time, the election of lay delegates for the election of the Patriarch dates to the Armenian National Constitution. Thus, both the representative function of the Patriarch as well as certain limits on the position date to this time. Of course, the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey, including the devastation of the Armenian Genocide, drastically affected the position of the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul. Nonetheless, today the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul retains the status as the chief bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church within the Republic of Turkey. The Patriarch is also an important figure in the broader life of the Armenian community of Istanbul.
For centuries, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul has been one of the most important posts in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Some of the most prominent clergymen and devoted servants of Jesus Christ have served in the position. Patriarch Hovhannes Golod, who was Patriarch from 1715-1741, greatly expanded the authority of the Patriarchate and was a dynamic leader. In the nineteenth century, beloved Patriarch Khrimian, known affectionately as Khrimian Hayrig was the Patriarch of Istanbul before becoming Catholicos of all Armenians. Scholarly Ormanian occupied the position from 1896-1908. In the twentieth century, faithful leaders, some of whom served in the Eastern Diocese for a time, were Patriarchs. This important and consequential position will officially be filled tomorrow, December 11, 2019. May the new Patriarch be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
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