Based in what is now İstanbul since A.D. 356, the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has long been asking the Turkish government to return four churches confiscated by the self-declared "Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate" run by the Erenerol family.
The recent investigations into the Ergenekon gang have suggested that there may be links between the deep state gang and this fake "patriarchate."
"They came to İstanbul from Kayseri and declared a so-called 'Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate.' They always tried to undermine the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1924, they occupied our church -- the Panayia Kafatiani Church-- in Galata and beat-up our clergymen. Later, in 1926, they occupied another church, the Hristos Church. We have documents proving that these churches belong to us," said Bishop Meliton from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate on Monday in a special interview with Today's Zaman.
As it turns out, the "Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate" hasn't had a congregation for years but was created by the Turkish state together with a small number of Greek Orthodox members in the 1920s when parts of Anatolia were under Greek control.
In an operation named "Ergenekon" a couple of weeks ago, several people with links to Turkey's "deep state" were arrested. Among them was Sevgi Erenerol, the "media and public relations officer of the independent patriarchate." She is the granddaughter of Father Eftim, founder of the so-called patriarchate.
Father Eftim was a village priest from the Turkish-speaking Karamanlı Greek community of Cappadocia in Anatolia who supported the Turks during the War of Independence.
"Eftim became the leader of the 'patriarchate' in Kayseri in 1922 under the name of the 'Independent Patriarchate of the Turkish Orthodox,'" said Elçin Macar, the author of "İstanbul Rum Patrikhanesi" (İstanbul Greek Patriarchate, 2003) and a professor at the Yıldız Technical University's department of political science and international relations.
Eftim and his family were exempted from the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, but his small congregation moved out of the country. Without any congregation, Eftim moved to İstanbul in 1924, together with the "patriarchate," Macar explained. Eftim had some followers in Galata, an area with a large Greek population.
"Eftim and his sons call themselves 'patriarchs.' Who elected them? When? Eftim's son Turgut succeeded his father and called himself Patriarch Eftim II. Then came Turgut's brother, and then they brought Paşa [Sevgi Erenerol's brother] from the United States to assume the role of the 'Patriarch.' They have all been excommunicated by the Orthodox Church," Bishop Meliton said.
Bishop Meliton also said Selçuk Erenerol, the father of Sevgi Erenerol, occupied the Aya Nikola and Aya Yani churches, which originally belonged to the Greek minority, on Sept. 1, 1965. Then the property that belonged to these four churches was given to the foundation of this fake patriarchate.
"It was a plan that had been organized back in 1936. The so-called 'Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate' claimed in its 1936 declaration that the two churches, which were to be seized almost thirty years later, belong to it. I don't know how, but on Nov. 11, 1964, the deeds of the Aya Nikola and Aya Yani churches were registered to the church foundation that belongs to the so-called patriarchate," Bishop Meliton added.
He said he visited these churches to see what has been going on and found laundry left out to dry in the courtyard of the Aya Nikola Church, where religious activities are no longer held: "Aya Yani was rented to the Syrian community and Panayia Kafatiani, the so-called center of the 'Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate,' was linked to the Ergenekon gang, as we have learned from the press. Of course, our legitimate demand to guarantee the return of our Galata churches that we have inherited from our forefathers has been constant. The fact that this request coincided with the Ergenekon affair is coincidental, even though the involvement of Sevgi Erenerol demonstrates that our usurped churches have not been used for spiritual or religious matters."
When Bishop Meliton visited the Panayia Kafatiani Church a few years ago, he noticed that the "patriarchate" didn't know how to conduct a religious ceremony. "They didn't even wear their gowns properly. Some people were lighting candles. That was it," he said.
In response to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate's pleas for the return of these churches, the Turkish government finally gave back the Hristos Church in Galata in 1947 to the Orthodox Patriarchate, but because of a road enlargement in the area, the church was torn down and the compensation paid for its expropriation was given to the foundation of the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate.
"We don't interfere with anyone establishing whatever church. But it should be done with their own resources. They confiscated our property," Bishop Meliton said.
'Selçuk Erenerol demanded recognition'
Bishop Meliton said after Turgut Erenerol died his brother, Selçuk Erenerol, requested a meeting with members of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
On Sept. 10, 1992 at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, three bishops received Erenerol, who said they would give back the three churches in Galata to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate if the Patriarchate recognized the name of the "Turkish Orthodox Church" and Erenerol's right to administer it; rescinded the excommunication of his father, Eftim; and Erenerol's rights to spend income from the 72 properties held by these three church foundations.
"Our Patriarchate representatives made clear to him that these demands were not acceptable. It was unacceptable for the Patriarchate to recognize an institution that was established against the Orthodox Church's principles. Since each church needs income for its continuity and believers made donations for the future of these churches, we couldn't think of separating the income flows from the churches."
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had 90 properties
In addition to property lost to the bogus patriarchate, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has also had many churches taken away by the Turkish Foundations General Directorate. The Patriarchate once had 90 churches in İstanbul and on the islands of Gökçeada (Imbros) and Bozcaada (Tenedos), the deeds of which belong to the foundation of each church. The Turkish Foundations General Directorate arbitrarily assumed the management of 24 of these foundations, together with their property, calling them "mazbut." "The Foundations General Directorate claims to have the right to rent or transfer these properties -- churches, schools, etc. -- to third parties," Bishop Meliton said, explaining the implications of the "mazbut" status.
"Look what happened to the Greek church and school in Edirnekapı. They are in shambles. In addition, the Foundations General Directorate rented the school in the courtyard of the church to somebody who established a billiard saloon there," he said, showing pictures of the inside of the decaying church and the school building.
He added that the Patriarchate had to go to the European Court of Human Rights for the first time to stand up for its ownership rights over the orphanage building on the island of Büyükada.
"We don't want to go to the court again. We want to solve all our problems in a spirit of good faith and cooperation with the Turkish government. We are tax-paying voters. We serve in the Turkish army. We are loyal Turkish citizens. We don't have political ambitions at all. We have no ties with any sort of gangs. We don't want to be like the Vatican either. We just want to preserve our churches and our faith."
The Turkish Parliament has been debating a bill on minority foundations that was previously vetoed by former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on the grounds that "it may serve to strengthen minority foundations." State Minister Hayati Yazıcı said last month that these concerns were not shared by Parliament's Justice Commission.
YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN İSTANBUL