The spiritual leader of Turkey’s small Armenian community has caused outrage in Armenia after criticizing the German parliament for recognizing the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire.
Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the acting Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, wrote to Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan shortly after the Bundestag overwhelmingly passed a corresponding resolution on June 2. In the letter sent on behalf of his community, he said that German lawmakers had “no right” to pass judgment on the Armenian massacres. He also claimed that Armenians are being exploited by “imperialist forces.”
Some prominent members of the community swiftly condemned Ateshian. A Turkish-Armenian newspaper, “Agos,” ran an angry editorial last week, saying that the letter to Erdogan caused it “sorrow, anger and shame” and is an affront to the memory of the genocide victims.
The archbishop has also faced strong criticism in Armenia, with some local politicians, intellectuals and media figures accusing him of complicity in the Turkish government’s policy of vehement genocide denial.
On Thursday, Naira Zohrabian, the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second largest in parliament, read out a letter which he said was signed by some Turkish citizens of Armenian descent. It said that Ateshian no longer represents the community and must not be allowed to make a planned trip to Armenia later this month.
Ateshian is due to attend a meeting in Echmiadzin of the Supreme Spiritual Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church headed by Catholicos Garegin II.
“I do realize that our clergymen in Turkey operate under very serious limitations given the thuggish and totalitarian character of the Turkish authorities, but things must not be over the top,” Zohrabian said in the Armenian parliament. “The statements made by this cleric are absolutely unacceptable.”
The church itself has not joined the chorus of condemnation, however. Garegin’s press secretary, the Reverend Vahram Melikian, suggested earlier this week that the acting Istanbul patriarch’s letter to Erdogan may have been the result of “coercion.”
Turkey’s Armenian patriarchs have traditionally avoided antagonizing or publicly challenging the Turkish government for fear of putting the safety of their flock at risk.
The Istanbul Patriarchate responded to the outcry on Wednesday with a statement circulated on behalf of its Ecclesiastical Council. It claimed that the content of Ateshian’s letter reflected the “demands of several leading benefactors and heads of community institutions.” It also said that the archbishop “followed the example” of his predecessors.