The first English Language Armenian Weekly In The United States
Acting Editor Barbara J. Merguerian Assistant Editors Alin K.Gregorian Suzanne E. Moranian
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1) Interview with Patriarch Mesrob II of Istanbul and Turkey ( PART I ) 2) PUBLIC LECTURE 3) Erebuni Chorus Plans Gala Concert 1) Special in this issue: Interview with Patriarch Mesrob II of Istanbul and Turkey ( PART I ) Earlier this year, the newly elected and consecrated Patriarch of Istanbul and All Turkey, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafian, paid an unofficial visit to New York City. During this time, the Patriarch granted a lengthy interview to M-S correspondent Florence Avakian in which he commented on a series of issues ranging from the status of the Armenian church today to his own personal reasons for becoming a clergyman. Describing himself as an optimist and a pragmatist, the 42-year-old Patriarch focused in his remarks on the positive aspects of Armenian community life in Turkey and did not dwell on the many obstacles and problems. Thus in his discussion of the operation of Armenian churches and schools in Turkey today, he emphasized the freedom of the churches to hold religious services whenever they wish and the freedom of the schools to fashion the curriculum for the teaching of Armenian language and culture. He did not dwell on restrictions placed by the government over the free use of community property or over the conditions under which the schools operate. In problem areas, one of the most serious of which is the training of future clergy, the Patriarch made it clear that he is engaged in good-faith negotiations with the government to find a mutually acceptable solution. The patriarch is obviously determined to work with the authorities in Turkey in his efforts to maintain and elevate the religious and cultural status of the Armenian community there. We wish him every success in his most difficult endeavors, as the Patriarchate this month marks the 538th anniversary of its establishment in Istanbul. [Editor] The following is the verbatim transcript of the exclusive interview. By Florence Avakian Special to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator Florence Avakian: Your Beatitude, what is the condition of the Armenian Church in Turkey today? Patriarch Mesrob: In terms of the church life, it is one of the most vivacious Armenian communities in the world today. There is no other place where you would find so much popular pietism and so dynamic a church life in any other diasporan center in the world, neither in Armenia, nor in the Middle East. For example, during Lent, it's a seven-day occasion, not a Sunday-to-Sunday event. The churches are packed, full-house, all the way outside to the street gates. There are sermons, services on a daily basis, matins in the morning, vespers in the evening, and it's a communal period of renewal, with deep spirituality. Nowhere else in the world do you have that tradition. Even with the sad events we lived through at the turn of the century, the Istanbul Armenian community never broke with the church tradition, whereas the former Soviet Republic of Armenia had an abrupt cut with tradition. Hundreds of churches were closed, and only later were three or four of them left open in Yerevan. Church tradition there was frozen for a very long time. This is why we are having difficulty in present-day Armenia. In the free and independent state of Armenia today, the church needs decades for reevangelization, for recultivation of the spiritual values in the lives of the people, and a lot of catechistic work. The fact that the Echmiadzin monastery was open and Catholicos Vasken I was there and much loved by the people doesn't mean that there was the presence of the church in Armenia to the full extent. And in the diaspora, because many communities were busy first with establishing themselves, then opening up churches and finding church leadership, there weren't the necessary academic institutions, seminaries, to provide these new diasporan dioceses with leadership. And people had to adapt their communal lives to these new environments. There was no longer the community church that we had in the past in the Middle East or in Armenia. They now had to drive for a half hour or an hour to the church, which was in the city. Even today, in Istanbul, you shut the door of your house, cross the street and go into a church. Q: How many Armenian churches are there in Istanbul, and do they all have priests? And how many Armenian churches outside of Istanbul? A: There are 38 functioning churches and chapels being administered by 33 parish councils. We have 26 married priests and six celibate priests. Outside of Istanbul, we have six functioning churches - in Diyarbakir, Kaiseri (in the region of Hatay), Antioch, Kirikhan in Antioch, one in Alexandretta (Iskenderun) and one in Musa Dagh. Then we have quite a few communities which don't have churches but are somewhat organized: Ankara, Sebastia (Sivas), Malatia, Mersin and other small communities. They keep a constant relationship with the Patriarchate. We send priests to them. Q: How many Armenians are there in Istanbul, and how many outside of Istanbul in all these small communities? A: In Istanbul the community is between 60,000 and 65,000. Outside of Istanbul, we have no way of counting. But in all of Turkey, the total is about 80,000 to 82,000. Q: So in Sebastia, for example, how many Armenians would there be? And do they speak Armenian? A: In Sebastia (Sivas) we have some 40 families right now. They speak Armenian using the Sebastia dialect. Q: Do the Armenians of Istanbul speak Armenian? And are there Armenian language papers? Do they print in both Armenian and Turkish? A: Not all speak Armenian, because some of them have come from the inner provinces where they don't have churches or schools. They speak a dialect or understand a dialect, but they wouldn't be fully conversant in Armenian. We, in Istanbul, have two daily Armenian newspapers: Marmara is about 50 years old, and Jamanak, 90 years old, the oldest Armenian newspaper still in publication in the world. The circulation is about 2,000 for each. Both print only in Armenian. We also have the three-year old Agos, which is a bilingual [Turkish and Armenian] weekly with a circulation of nearly 6,000. Q: Why does Agos have a higher circulation? A: Because more people read Turkish. There are many people who speak Armenian, or some dialect of it, but who can't read it. Q: Your Beatitude, how many languages do you speak? A: Fluently, apart from Armenian and Turkish, English is my third, like my mother tongue. Then academically, I can translate and use French, Italian and Hebrew; however, I am not so proficient in speaking them fluently. Q: What is the status and condition of the Armenian schools in Turkey? A: We have 19 Armenian day schools in Istanbul, and this year we have 3,800 students. Fifteen of them are Armenian Orthodox schools, and four of them Armenian Catholic schools. But the Armenian Catholic community is less than 2,000 people. I would say, 95 percent of the Armenian Catholic school students are from our community. Pressures on the Armenian Church in Turkey Q: What pressures are there on the Armenian Church in Turkey by the government? A: How would you define pressure? Q: What restrictions or efforts to curtail either the education, language or the freedom of the church are there? A: We can open any of our churches at any time of the day. We can have any services we wish. We can have any type of Armenian or Turkish sermons or Bible studies on any subject that we want. There are no restrictions. In Turkey, I can openly say, there are no religious restrictions at all. Turks are religious people themselves. And we enjoy the same religious liberty as Muslims, Jews and Greeks. No ethnic or religious minority today in Turkey can say with a clear conscience, that there are any restrictions whatsoever. The only difficulty, and it isn't a direct curtailment of religious liberty, is how to train new priests. That's the main problem we have because we don't have an Armenian seminary in Istanbul. Q: Are you able to send candidates out of the country to other seminaries, then bring them back to Turkey with no problem? A: Yes, yes, with no problem. I can't say this is a restriction on the Armenian community, because it's the same for the Jews, Greeks and even the Muslims. The Muslim communities have no seminaries, but the universities have theological faculties where they have Islamic theology. There are not enough people who would enlist in a department of Christian theology in a country of 70 million Turkish citizens. And we Christians altogether are less than one percent [of the population]. The Greeks are less than 3,000. There are some 10,000 Syrian Orthodox, some 5,000 Catholics, some 5,000 Protestants. So, if you take all other non-Muslim Christian denominations, and put the Armenian Church on the other side of the scale, then we are still larger than all of them united. The Armenians are the largest non-Muslim community in Turkey, the number one church in that respect. None of these communities have enough vocations for the priesthood. There is no demand for the universities to open a Christian faculty of theology, because Turkey has secular laws and does not allow each religious community to open their own uncontrolled religious theological seminary. It's a Middle Eastern country, and you can have fanaticisms, like Islamic resurgence. If you do not allow Muslim communities to have their own private seminaries, then it wouldn't be right for the Christian communities to have their own seminaries because this would not be an equal opportunity before the law. And this is why we have problems. So what we have is informal Lsaran (auditorium) within the Patriarchate where, when we get vocations, we give spiritual formation training for two or three years. Then we send for shorter liturgical training these candidates who complete the formative training to places like Echmiadzin. They complete a year or two in these places, then we ordain them. If they have the will and capability to study further, then we send them to European schools, where they finish their education. It is costly this way. I have just suggested to the Turkish Higher Institution Council in Ankara that maybe they should allow the Patriarchate the privilege of enrolling five to ten students a year in the university system for whom we could prepare an interdisciplinary program where they could take existing humanities courses from different university departments. Then we could teach Christian theology and Armenian distinctive doctrines, about two semesters worth, and they could receive a university degree for that. Since my election, I have been working with the academicians in order to solve this problem. Apart from that, we have no restrictions in daily religious life. I have been working as a minister of different ranks since 1977. During the last 22 years in Istanbul, since being ordained a deacon, I have never experienced any restriction in church ministry. Pressures on Patriarchal Election Q: You were elected by a very large vote margin. Why was the Turkish government so opposed to your election? A: You cannot find even a single word in any radio, TV or newspaper report where the Turkish government opposed my candidacy. Just the opposite. All the mainline papers in Turkey defended my candidacy. It was the ultra-nationalists, two or three papers and one ultra-nationalist TV channel, which claimed that the government did not support my candidacy. The reality is that, among the 33 Armenian parish councils, three opposed my election. They were in the hands of some Armenian people using the real estate of those churches. They did not have a substantial parish community and were dwindling, small churches. The people in power in this group knew that a dynamic, younger patriarch would challenge what was happening in those parishes. They seemed to prefer someone older whom they could manipulate. They tried to use their connections with the governor of Istanbul to influence the government decision. And the government, instead of opposing my candidacy, thinking that the community was divided on this issue which was not true, wanted the preelection period to be longer, to be studied. It was the Turkish president himself who finally stated publicly that the Turkish government has no right to interfere in the democratic way in which the Armenian community has always elected their patriarchs, and that the Turkish government will ratify whoever is elected. This is what happened, and I was given a high state welcome two months later in Ankara by the President, the President of the National Assembly, the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Minister and three state ministers in the National Assembly hall. The 50 Armenian administrators from various districts in the community were all honored by the National Assembly. Q: Has the government restricted the building of renovation of Armenian religious monuments? A: We just renovated the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Kayseri (Gesaria), and in 2001 we're going to celebrate the 1,700-year [anniversary of the ] founding of the Church. Q: But we have heard, read and seen pictures of the destruction of the Armenian monuments in Turkey. Are things like that taking place? A: The churches which still belong to the Armenian church communities are in good shape. All Armenian churches in Istanbul are in excellent shape. In Anatolia, we just reconstructed the whole complex of St. Mary's Armenian Church on Musa Dagh. And the only church now which is in terrible shape is in Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), St. Giragos Church. The problem in Diyarbakir is that the municipality and the governor's office are bugging the Patriarchate to go on with the renovation. And it is the Armenian community which is not able to renovate. Why? Because after the Gulf War, many northern Iraqis migrated to Diyarbakir, and many Armenians didn't like the insecurity in the area. They left for Istanbul. So the parish belongings and the title deeds of buildings and real estate, the church, the monuments there are now in the hands of just 14 simple provincial people who don't know what to do with the property. They don't have the money to renovate it, and when you have only a community of 14, as opposed to at least 1,000 or 1,500, the Patriarchate is now wondering whether it is worth renovating the place. It is a huge church with five altars, and the roof has collapsed. It is as large as St. Vartan Cathedral here. Just the mending of the roof will cost at least $200,000. Q: How about Ani, Akhtamar? A: According to Ottoman law and the laws of the Turkish Republic (which pertain not only to Armenians, but also Greeks, Jews and Muslims), if a religious temple does not have a community, it is not owned by that community any longer. Q: Then who protects it? A: Well, in theory, the Department of Antiquities. But in reality, nobody. It just remains there. If the government cannot repair it, it falls into dilapidation. Q: In the last few interviews I had with Charles Aznavour, who is Armenia's Ambassador to UNESCO, it is trying to save these monuments. Shouldn't that be the case? A: Of course it should. As an Armenian person and a Turkish citizen, I demand that the Church of Akhtamar, the ruins of Ani, and any Middle Age monument be preserved. But Anatolia itself is a cradle of so many civilizations beginning in 3000 BC, and it depends on each government, depending on the particular political party in charge, which monuments they want to invest in. It is natural that the Turkish government will put money into the Seljuk and Ottoman Turkish monuments. They don't put the same emphasis on the Roman or Greek monuments. They do put money into world famous sites like Haghia Sophia, Ephesus, etc. Don't forget that these famous sites are also patronized by European governments and academic institutions. Q: If UNESCO did the restoring of Ani or Akhtamar, it would not be Turkish money doing it. Is the Turkish government preventing this? A: I don't think so, because I have just heard that there was a Turkish government resolution to renovate Akhtamar. I think one of the Turkish business associations is giving money for it. All I want is that it be done by hands who know Armenian art and architecture. I am not happy with some of the reconstruction I have witnessed in Ani, where some people have covered Armenian writings on the walls. They must be well versed in Armenian cultural monuments. Armenian Intermarriage in Turkey Q: In the United States, there is much intermarriage. What is the situation in Turkey, and what is the percentage of Armenian intermarriage? A: It's a good question. It's a problem for us, but not for people who are not ethnocentric. We Armenians, like the Greeks, Jews, Arabs and others, are ethnocentric where we are a minority in a given place. When, on the other hand, you talk about the global village, the blue-jeans and coca-cola culture all over the globe, growing up in one place, educated in another, and working yet in another, you're talking about a very secularized attitude to life. Then when you talk about ethnic backgrounds and religious culture, it's like a sweet sound, like a nice accessory, similar to the toys hanging from a Christmas tree. This disturbs the conservatives in ethnic groups. As a religious figure, I'm expected to be conservative. Q: Are you? A: I would say I am orthodox in terms of religion and ethnicity, but not conservative, because one cannot face the challenges of new periods during one's tenure, if you keep yourself in a closed mental box. I do feel the pain when I see intermarriages. I see a challenge there for a sound Armenian Christian family. Q: What percentage of the Armenian community in Turkey intermarries? And do they change their religion when this happens? A: It depends, from year to year. Overall, it's about 30 to 40 percent. No, they do not change their religion. Turkey is an ultra-secular country. There are no religious laws to Islamic resurgence, and its politicization is a different matter. Q: Intermarriage there could be with Greeks, Syrians, etc. What percentage intermarries with Turkish Muslims? And how are the children brought up? A: Ninety percent of the intermarriages would be with Turkish Muslims. How the children are brought up depends on the parents. Because of the secular state, there is no need to change religions. The Muslim stays Muslim, and the Christian remains Christian. Whatever the religion of the father, the children are supposed to be adherents of that religion. Q: It is mostly Armenian men or women who intermarry? And of those who intermarry, are they mostly born in Turkey? And are they mostly professional, or business people? A: It's 50-50, men and women. And most are born in Turkey, and from all walks of life. Most of them are educated people. Q: What are the main professions of the Armenians in Turkey? A: A good portion of the community are artisans - jewelers, silversmiths. We have professors in the university, computer engineers, a well-educated community. The Genocide Q: The question of the Genocide is a passionate issue in the diaspora. What is the situation in Turkey? Can you discuss it, write about it, use the word "genocide"? (End of PART I) 2) PUBLIC LECTURE Organized by: The Armenian Mirror-Spectator Wednesday, June 16, 1999, 7:30 P.M. to be held at: Armenian Library and Museum of America 65 Main Street, Watertown, MA Gerard J. Libaridian Historian and Senior Advisor to former President Levon Ter Petrossian Presents his new book "The Challenge of Statehood, Armenian Political Thinking Since Independence" Published by Blue Crane Books of Cambridge, MA Admission Free If you want a copy of the book, please write to The Armenian Mirror Spectator , 755 Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown, MA 02472, USA or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or fax to (617) 924-2887. 3) Erebuni Chorus Plans Gala Concert WATERTOWN, Mass. - The Erebuni Armenian Chorus of Greater Boston, an independent choral group founded in 1994, has resumed rehearsals for its 1999 program of performances which will include its fifth anniversary gala concert on Sunday, October 24. Rehearsals are in progress on Monday and Thursday evenings in the Mirak or Tarvezian Halls at the St. James Armenian Church here from 8 to 10 p.m. Interested singers are still welcome to audition on those evenings. Under the direction of Maestro Artur Veranian, a distinguished award-winning musician from Armenia, the chorus has offered major concerts which have received accolades in the Greater Boston, Merrimack Valley and Worcester, as well as in Toronto and Montreal. Since its formation, the group has been invited to appear annually at the Massachusetts State House in Boston for the April 24 program in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. Maestro Veranian, upon his arrival in the United States, founded the Yerevan Women's Choir of Los Angeles. Since 1994 he has been the choirmaster of St. James Armenian Church as well as the founder, artistic director and conductor of the Erebuni Chorus. He arranges much of the music for the chorus which is known for its ability to perform a cappella. In 1995 Veranian organized the St. James Armenian Church Junior Choir/Chorale for youth ranging in age from 5 to 16. In 1998 he founded the Ave Sol Center for the Arts also in Watertown, with the support and encouragement of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. The center offers beginner and advanced courses in various instruments including piano, violin, harp, guitar, kanon and voice. It also offers group classes in dance, solfege and creative music for children. The fifth anniversary gala concert promises to be an unforgettable celebration with guest artists and instrumentalists performing with the chorus. Concert details will be announced soon. A reception will follow the concert, which will enable those attending to meet the guest artists and chorus members.
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