Archbishop Sebouh Chouldjian of Vanadzor on Tuesday defended his calls for an end to an opposition boycott of the municipal council that controversially elected a new pro-government mayor of Armenia’s third largest city this fall.
Mamikon Aslanian of the ruling Republican Party (HHK) became mayor thanks to four opposition members of the council who secretly broke the ranks and voted for him.
Three opposition parties won 18 of the 33 council seats in the municipal election held in October. They failed to pick Vanadzor’s next mayor only because the four, still unknown councilors were bulled into backing Aslanian. They have been boycotting sessions of the local council in protest.
Chouldjian deplored the boycott when he celebrated a Christmas mass in a Vanadzor church on January 6. The move provoked strong criticism from Bright Armenia, one of the three opposition parties. The Bright Armenia leader, Edmon Marukian, accused the cleric of meddling and taking sides in a political dispute.
Chouldjian, who heads the Gugark Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church encompassing Vanadzor and surrounding areas, rejected the criticism. He said he simply urged local political factions to “rally around national and state structures and act together,” rather than voiced support for the HHK.
“I have always mocked the Republican Party … I don’t support the Republican Party or spare it criticism. That’s not true,” Chouldjian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an interview.
“I support statehood,” he said. “I stand with those [state] institutions so that they establish themselves.”
The archbishop accused Marukian of exploiting the issue to score political points. He went on to appeal to the 35-year-old parliamentarian: “Edmon, come to me, I forgive you and I will do everything to help you continue your political activities on the rick track.”
Marukian, who is also based in Vanadzor, stood by his criticism, saying that the archbishop’s comments were “not objective and impartial” “Under the constitution, Armenia is a secular state where the church is separated from the state,” he said. “When the church or its clergymen try to meddle in the political life they must at least be objective.”
Marukian also reaffirmed Bright Armenia’s plans to ask the Yerevan government to call a snap election in Vanadzor. He said that under Armenian law local councils can be dissolved if they fail to meet and make a quorum for more than three months. “The Armenian government holds the key to solving this crisis,” he said.
The two other opposition parties represented in the local council, Armenian Revival and Prosperous Armenia, voiced support for Marukian’s initiative.
Aslanian, the Vanadzor mayor, dismissed the opposition plans when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Monday.