Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Ergenekon affair: Turkish/Orthodox controversy

A series of recent arrests in Turkey focuses attention on a nationalist movement with ties to the so-called Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate, which plots to frustrate the Europeanization of Turkey.
Thursday, February 21, 2008By Ioannis R. Grigoriadis

The Church of Panagia Kafatiani in Istanbul was the headquarters of Ergenekon, a group that planned to bring Turkey's Europeanisation to a halt through a series of assassinations. The group sprang from a bizarre institution, the Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate.

A series of arrests in the last weeks has brought to the fore the links of the Turkish deep state (derin devlet) with one of the most paradoxical constructions of Turkish nationalism, the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate.

Criminal investigation has been unravelling the traces of Ergenekon - which most Turkish newspapers call a terrorist organisation - a product of the cooperation between the Turkish deep state and far-right extremists.

Named after the mythical location of the birth of the Turkish nation, Ergenekon's membership consists of retired officers, policemen, rogue intellectuals and lawyers. What brought this group together was its members' determination to derail what they saw as Turkey's course towards partition, in other words Turkey's democratisation reform.

They developed links with organised crime with the aim to orchestrate the assassination of prominent liberal intellectuals and minority leaders. In their lists featured the names of Orhan Pamuk - Turkey's first and only Nobel Prize laureate - Kurdish political leaders such as Ahmet Turk, Leyla Zana, Sebahat Tuncel and Osman Baydemir, as well as Fehmi Koru, columnist of the liberal Islamist daily Yeni Safak. Their aim was to wreak havoc in Turkish society through a series of assassinations and provoke one more military coup in 2009, bringing Turkey's democratisation process and EU accession negotiations to a precipitous end.

Their underground activity was abruptly stopped on January 23, when 33 people were arrested, including Veli Kucuk, a retired army general; Fikret Karadag, a retired army colonel; Sami Hostan, a key figure in the Susurluk affair, a car accident that shocked Turkey in 1996 by disclosing the links between the deep state and organised crime; Guler Komurcu, a columnist of the Aksam daily; and Kemal Kerincsiz.

The latter is a lawyer who repeatedly attracted publicity through his lawsuits against Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos and Orhan Pamuk, as well as the organisation of an academic conference on the Armenian question in 2005.

Kucuk, seen as the most prominent of all detainees, was thought to be the founder of Jandarma Istihbarat ve Terorle Mucadele (JITEM), a clandestine organisation of the Turkish Gendarmerie with the mission to instigate terrorist attacks that would then be attributed to other groups, Islamist or nationalist.

Kucuk was suspected of involvement in the assassination of a senior judge in Turkey's Supreme Administrative Court in May 2006, a bomb attack against the Istanbul premises of the secularist daily Cumhuriyet in the same month and even the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007. Evidence found during the police operation only reinforced these suspicions.

One of the detainees was Sevgi Erenerol, the press officer of the Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate. To make things even more interesting, it was reported that the detainees were regularly meeting and even storing ammunition in Panagia Kafatiani, one of the most historic Orthodox churches of Istanbul. Panagia Kafatiani was the effective headquarters of the Ergenekon. To understand how this could happen, one needs to look into the history of one of the most bizarre byproducts of Turkish nationalism: the Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate.

In the years of the 1919-1922 Greek-Turkish war, Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey's first president, won an unconventional ally. A Greek Orthodox priest from Akdag Maden in East Central Anatolia, Pavlos Karahisaridis - later to become widely known as Papa-Eftim - joined Turkish nationalist forces in their struggle against Greece. His mission was to win the loyalty of the hundreds of thousands of Turkish-speaking Orthodox living throughout inner Anatolia, the Karamanlis, and create an Orthodox subdivision of the Turkish nation.

His efforts were intensified in autumn 1922 after the defeat of the Greek army with the creation of the Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate. The Mandatory Population Exchange Convention of 30 January 1923 dealt a heavy blow to Papa-Eftim's project.

The adoption of religion as the criterion of the mandatory population exchange meant that all his would-be Anatolian followers would be forcefully sent to Greece.

Papa-Eftim's family was exempted from the exchange through a decision of the Turkish Council of Ministers. Papa-Eftim then settled in Istanbul and repeatedly attempted to occupy the Ecumenical Patriarchate and turn it into a Turkish national church.

He also appealed to the Karamanlis component of Istanbul's Greek minority, which was spared by the population exchange. These attempts met with failure, as the Orthodox flock of Istanbul - including the Karamanlis - remained indifferent to his appeals to join Turkish nationalism.

Yet, with the support of the republican Turkish state, Papa-Eftim stormed and occupied in time the four Orthodox churches of Karakoy (Galata), together with their very affluent pious foundations (vakuf). He also took an impeccable Turkish name: Zeki Erenerol.

With virtually no flock other than his family, Papa-Eftim managed an enormous wealth. His Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate, unrecognised by all but the Turkish state, looked more like an affluent family business looting the property of a helpless minority than a church.

Papa-Eftim, who was awarded the Medal of Independence, the highest decoration of the Republic of Turkey, soon developed links with far-right extremists. When he died in 1968, he was succeeded by his sons and grandsons. Sevgi Erenerol is Papa-Eftim's granddaughter and sister of the current "patriarch", Pasha Umit Erenerol.

The ejection of Papa-Eftim's family from the occupied Galata churches and the restoration of the rightful proprietors to the assets of the Galata pious foundations is one of the issues the Ecumenical Patriarchate has persistently raised.

Turkish liberals met the disclosure of the Ergenekon affair with relief and concern. What alarmed many was the evidence of an unprecedented alliance between the Turkish deep state and rogue far-right elements. As liberal intellectual Murat Belge stated in an interview with the daily Taraf, the deep state used to see the far right as a usable dirty tool but never founded an alliance with it.

Under the new conditions set by Turkey's EU membership perspective, rogue elements of Turkish society seem to have felt threatened and joined forces. The police operations of January 23 dealt a heavy blow to them. The extermination of such organisations, however, will be anything but easy.

What remains to be seen is whether the involvement of the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate in such criminal activities incites Turkish authorities to restore the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Istanbul's Greek minority to the churches and the assets of Greek pious foundations in Galata. After all, it is Papa-Eftim's "church" and not the Ecumenical Patriarchate that seems to be involved in subversive activities against the Republic of Turkey.

Dr. Ioannis N Grigoriadis teaches in the Department of Turkish & Modern Asian Studies, University of Athens, and is also a research fellow at ELIAMEP. He appears here courtesy of Athens News.



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