The Turkish government is imposing its political preferences when it comes to selecting the leaders of the country’s minority groups—and posing a threat to religious freedom.
On Dec. 12, 2019, the U.S. Senate approved for the first time a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide and commemorate “the killing of an estimated 1,500,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.” The previous day, Turkey’s embattled Armenian community of 70,000 elected Sahak Masalyan as the 85th patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The patriarchal elections came 11 years too late and featured heavy-handed meddling from a Turkish government increasingly irritated by the growing list of countries that recognize the Armenian genocide.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, established in 1461, enjoyed relative autonomy under the Ottoman millet system, as the church provided spiritual and civic leadership to its members. An Ottoman code in 1863 introduced lay participation in church affairs, and the Turkish government’s 1951 decree governing patriarchal elections provided a vaguely worded guideline as to how delegates chosen by lay members and the Spiritual Council would then elect the patriarch.