Turkey’s Armenian community on Wednesday voted in Bishop Sahak Maşalyan as its new patriarch, in an election critics say was overshadowed by Turkish government intervention.
Delegates elected Maşalyan, 57, as the 85th patriarch of Armenian Orthodox Christians in Turkey, the church announced at the end of an election process that began on Dec. 7. He succeeds Patriarch Mesrob II, who died in March at age 62. Maşalyan’s rival, Archbishop Aram Ateşyan, had been serving as acting patriarch since 2008 when Mesrob became incapacitated and withdrew from his duties.
Ateşyan and Maşalyan were among only three candidates who were able to stand for the position after Turkey ruled that Armenian clergy currently serving abroad would not be eligible. The third candidate dropped out of the race in protest, while some community members boycotted the election, according to Turkish media reports.
The patriarch is considered the head of Armenians in Turkey, who number an estimated 70,000, and serves as a go-between the government and the community. Turkish officials often rely on the patriarch’s cooperation for their efforts to counter moves around the world to recognize the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago as genocide.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed around World War I, and many scholars see it as the 20th century’s first genocide. Turkey disputes the description, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of a civil war. Turkey has repeatedly called for a joint committee of historians to investigate the slayings.
Garo Paylan, a legislator in Turkey’s parliament, was among community members who boycotted the election.
“I will not consider the one chosen to be my patriarch,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that those who interfered in the election would go down in the “dark pages” of history.
Last year, the Turkish government intervened to halt elections at the patriarchate on the grounds that “the necessary conditions for the electoral process had not been met” and that Mesrob was still alive.