In an interview with daily Cumhuriyet on Sept. 21, marking the 99th anniversary of the Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate (Bağımsız Türk Ortodoks Patrikhanesi), spokesperson for the church, Sevgi Erenerol, reaffirmed the church’s adherence to Turkish nationalism and the founding principles of the Turkish republic.
Erenerol, who was previously incarcerated in the controversial Ergenekon case, said that the patriarchate will “undertake the task of defending the republic forever under all circumstances.”
The Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate was founded in 1922 by Pavlos Karahisarithis, who took the title of Pope (Papa) Eftim I. From its founding, it maintained a staunchly nationalist stance in opposition to the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, which is tied to the Eastern Orthodox church.
In the years after the church’s founding, Papa Eftim I repeatedly invaded the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate with his followers - during the second such invasion, in 1923, they were evicted by Turkish police. However, after Papa Eftim I began giving liturgy in Turkish in 1924, the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate won the support of the newly-founded Turkish republic. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk famously even said the Turkish patriarchate “served [the] country as much as an army.”
In the interview with Cumhuriyet, Erenerol reflected on the Turkish nationalist history of the church, highlighting that in 1918 Papa Eftim I declared the group Turkish, not Greek. She also noted that the patriarchate provided support to Turkish forces during the War of Independence. She described the Turkish Patriarchate as it was founded as a means of protecting Turkish Christians from foreign and Greek influence.
“Through the Istanbul patriarchate, Pope Eftim formally organized the Anatolian Christians under one roof and prevented the West’s ambitions in Anatolia,” she said.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate further cemented its ties with the country’s nationalist - and later ultra-nationalist - movements. During the reign of Papa Eftim I, the founder of the Republican Peasant and Nation Party, which would later evolve into the ultra-nationalist National Movement Party (MHP), Alparslan Türkeş, established ties with the church. These ties would only strengthen over the second half of the twentieth century.
Spokeswoman Erenerol herself is the granddaughter of Papa Eftim I and the daughter of Papa Eftim II. She also has close ties with the Turkish ultranationalist movement. In the 1990s, when Alparslan Türkeş was head of the MHP, she ran to be an Istanbul parliamentary representative for the party. Though she lost, both she and the church remained deeply enmeshed in both the party’s and its affiliates’ activities.
Both the patriarchate and Erenerol were also said to have close ties with the Ergenekon network -- an alleged deep-state, ultra-nationalist organization network tied closely to Turkish security and military forces. It is alleged that the patriarchate, now in Galata, in Istanbul, was the headquarters for the organization.
In 2012, the network was the target of a wide-ranging investigation and trial, which implicated several prominent members of the political and military establishment. Erenerol herself was convicted of membership in the organization - which the judiciary said was trying to overthrow the Turkish republic - and sentenced to life in prison in 2013. A year later in 2014, she, along with many others, was released.
Erenerol addressed these allegations in the anniversary statement, blaming her conviction and claims that the patriarchate is tied to Ergenekon on the "FETÖ," using the government's acronym for the Gülen network, and on “foreign powers”.
“Under the guise of foreign powers, FETÖ established the Ergenekon conspiracy and implicated the patriarch in that conspiracy,” she said. “As such, the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate was said to shelter a terrorist organization. They did this so that they could shut it down and establish the Fener patriarchate as an ecumenical church in its place. But the plan did not go as they hoped it would.”
She also accused the Fener Greek patriarchate of colluding with foreign powers, which she says is outside its purview as protector of Turkey’s Greek Orthodox population. She said this was bringing foreign influence to Turkey, and that it was a crime. The Turkish patriarchate, Erenerol said, has filed a criminal complaint with the Istanbul prosecutor’s office to contest the Greek Orthodox church’s expansion of its influence, but that the prosecutor had said it was a religious issue and the state could not interfere.
Striking a somewhat militaristic tone, she further positioned the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate as a bulwark of Atatürk’s conception of Turkish secularism and of a Turkish state that allows for a multiplicity of religions.
“Our most important philosophy, which enables us to live together, is to protect secularism. This is the duty of every Turk…The Republic of Turkey, created by Atatürk, will continue to exist until eternity, thanks to Mustafa Kemal's soldiers,” she said.