Sunday, February 03, 2008

How Atatürk's church became an ultra-nationalist base

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Owing its
genesis and resources to the Turkish state, the mini-size but super-rich Turkish Orthodox Church has become a devotee of the most radical version of its founding ideology

Mustafa Akyol
ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News

Any quick history of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, will surely include the institutions he created, from İş Bank to Ankara University to the ideology that bears his name. But who knew the story of the little church that he created until it found itself entangled in the alleged ultra-nationalist criminal gang called “Ergenekon”?

This group of about three dozen nationalist figures, including a former general and a colonel, and one of Turkey's most active lawyers who sued many liberal intellectuals for “insulting Turkishness,” has been making headlines in Turkey in the past few weeks. The groups' members were arrested in a midnight raid and several of them are still under arrest. One name among them that looked a bit unusual in the first sight was a middle-aged woman named Sevgi Erenerol who claims the title of “public relations representative of the Turkish Orthodox Church.”

‘A closed box':

This curious church is located in one of the narrow streets of Karaköy, one of Istanbul's busiest and oldest districts. But unlike the other houses of worship Istanbul, in which you can go, see, and join the mass, this one is peculiarly unwelcoming. When you walk into the garden, solemn men warn you not to take pictures, and say there is “no one to answer questions.”

“This place is really a closed box, brother,” says Hüseyin Karaşimşek, who works in a small manufacturing outfit right across the street. “I've been here five years and haven't felt comfortable enough to go in and ask for a glass of water.” In his view there is not much worship going on inside. “I have never heard any music or hymns here; just some guys come in and nobody talks much.”

As the Ergenekon inquiry unfolds, it appears that the church might not only be linked to Ergenekon, but could actually be its very base. According to the prosecutor, the church has been “the headquarters and the financial hub” of the covert gang. Mrs. Erenerol and her 12 friends are now on trial and under arrest by an Istanbul court for “establishing an organization to provoke public unrest” and preparing the way for a military coup.

By state, for the state:

The story goes back to Turkey's War of Liberation, when Turks and Greeks were at war. At the time, the traditional Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, which to date calls itself “Ecumenical Patriarchate,” looked as if it was content with the occupation of Anatolia by Greek forces. The ecumenical patriarchate debate is a seperate story in itself. Some Orthodox Christians in Anatolia were rather pro-Turkish and one among them, Pavlos Karahisarithis, established the “Autocephalous (Independent) Orthodox Patriarchate of Anatolia” in 1921 in Kayseri, to support the Turkish national struggle. General Mustafa Kemal, unsurprisingly, liked this unorthodox orthodoxy, and after winning the war, he favored them over the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

In 1924 Karahisarithis, who later changed his name into Zeki Erenerol, called a Turkish ecclesial congress that elected him “Papa (Patriarch) Eftim”. He and his family members were exempted from the population exchange between Turkey and Greece and were given official support — which included valuable real estate in Istanbul.

When Zeki Erenerol died in 1962, the “Patriarchate” passed to his son Turgut Erenerol, or “Papa Eftim II.” Then it passed to Papa Eftim's other son and grandson, Selçuk Erenerol and Paşa Ümit Erenerol, or “Papa Eftim III” and “Papa IV.” Sevgi Erenerol, or “Mrs. Ergenekon,” is the daughter of Papa Eftim III and the sister of the current papa. The church remains unrecognized by all Christians except as its own members, which, according to estimates, consist only of a few dozen people.

Recently daily Hürriyet called it “the church with no congregation but lots of finances.” Actually some consider the whole affair to be some sort of family business. One of the employees of the beer hall across the street from the church supports the idea that the tiny institution is super rich. “They own about three hundred shops in this neighborhood,” he says, “including mine, so don't use my name.”

According to Hadi Uluengin, columnist for daily Hürriyet, as “a temple with no believers” the Turkish Orthodox Church is “an unrivalled absurdity in the world.” In his column Uluengin recently recalled how “Papa Eftim” was seen by traditional Greek Orthodox followers in his childhood, in the 1950s. “When the ‘Patriarch' was passing by the restaurant of Ilya Dayı,” he wrote, “the Orthodox owner would murmur, ‘Ah, he is going to collect monthly rents again'.”

No king but the Caesar:

What makes the church more interesting is its politics. Its “public relations representative,” Mrs. Erenerol, used to make news in recent years with her furious remarks on the “conspiracies” cooked up against Turkey. She was especially abhorrent of her co-religionists. “Missionary activities in Turkey are aiming at more than religious goals and they pose a threat to national security,” she said in 2005 at a conference held by Turkish Education Workers' Union (Türk Eğitim-Sen). “The ulterior motives behind missionary activities are to seize our country,” she argued, feeding the very paranoia that would lead to the killing of Priest Santoro in Trabzon and three missionaries in Malatya.

Mrs. Erenorol also made a name for herself by writing for the marginal magazine “Turkish Left,” which promotes a unique combination of Kemalist secularism and a fierce Turkish racism with strong anti-Kurdish tones.

On almost all political issues, Mrs. Erenerol sounds like the most rigid Kemalists. Owing its genesis and resources to the Turkish state, her church apparently has become a devotee of the most radical version of its founding ideology.

Perhaps the symbolism on the front wall of the church is meaningful. Above the small sized cross, lies a huge poster of Atatürk superimposed on the red and white Turkish flag. In the room beneath, there is another poster of Atatürk with a controversial quote: “When the homeland is in question, everything else is trivial.” This slogan, attributed to the Great Leader, has recently become the battle cry of ultra-nationalists, who say that Turkey is in danger, and thus all other values, such as democracy, human rights and freedoms are secondary.


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