Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, the 84th Patriarch of Istanbul, passed away March 8th, 2019. Since 2008, he had been incapacitated and was hospitalized for over 10 years, suffering from Alzheimers Disease. The Turkish government officials explained that he had not passed away, and was still alive, although he could not talk or remember anything, but he is still the Patriarch. Therefore, election of a new Patriarch was not permitted. In 2008, Archbishop Aram Ateshyan was appointed to fulfill the position, not as a Patriarch, but as General Vicar. Some years later, in 2016, the Patriarchate and the Clergy Council voted and announced Mutafyan’s retirement, but the Turkish government did not accept the decision repeating the same adage that Patriarch Mutafyan is still alive.
The minorities in Turkey – Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Assyrians, Kurds, and others – are constantly under pressure from the government and very careful about their actions. It is a difficult situation for all minorities to carry on a normal day to day life. Sometimes individuals are brave and they try to do whatever they want. A very difficult situation for minorities indeed.
Patriarch Mutafyan was one of the most erudite Armenian clergymen who had pursued his education in several universities in Europe, Middle East, and the United States. After attending Armenian schools in Istanbul, Mutafyan graduated from the American High School in Stuttgart, Germany, he received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Memphis, Tennesee. He did graduate work in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University, the American Biblical Institute. He constantly went to institutions to get more education. Between 1979 and 1981, he delved into theological studies at the Jerusalem Armenian Convent, and for another year he attended the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy.
I have met Patriarch Mutafyan several times and we had talked basically about the church and the changes it needs. We met several times in Los Angeles while he was on an official visit. And the last visit was in Istanbul, January of 2010, when he was at the Patriarchate in his bedroom, where his mother was taking care of him and when I entered his bedroom, he did not recognize me.
He served in various capacities in the Istanbul Patriarchate. On October 14, 1998, he was finally elected Patriarch of Constantinople and when he got sick Archbishop Aram Ateshyan was appointed in 2008 to fulfill Patriarch Mesrob’s duties.
Since that day, the Armenian community has been in a turmoil and divided into various groups since the government was adamant about its decisions and many times would not let minorities to even think about elections, as several times the government would disband certain religious committees without explanations. Even Armenian delegates would not be permitted to go to Holy Etchmiadzin to participate in the elections of the new Catholicos.
There are groups who would like to listen to and negotiate with the government on certain issues. It will take some time before we see what will happen.
The election of the new Patriarch will take place 40 days later after the funeral. Several names of candidates have been mentioned, but is not official. According to Turkish law, the candidates have to be a citizen of Turkey or born in Turkey, thus limiting the number of candidates. It is not easy to be a community leader in Turkey.
We shall wait and see.