The Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate (Bağımsız Türk Ortodoks Patrikhanesi), a Turkish intelligence-linked fake patriarchate run by a neo-nationalist group in Turkey, has recently intensified attacks targeting the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a Nordic Monitor investigation has revealed.
The pressure comes against the backdrop of a decision by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to break a four-century link to the Russian Orthodox Church. On January 6, 2019 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, officially recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in a ceremony held in Istanbul, the historic seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Empowered by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the fake Turkish patriarchate moved to thwart the move, with Sevgi Erenerol, the self-described media and public relations officer of the independent patriarchate, filing a criminal complaint against Bartholomew I and 12 members of the Synod that made the decision to recognize the Ukrainian church. Describing the Ecumenical Patriarchate as separatist and divisive, the complaint accused Bartholomew of becoming a tool of the United States.
Erenerol claimed the Ecumenical Patriarchate had become a threat to Turkey and acted against national interests. She asked the prosecutor to launch criminal investigations on accusations of incitement to violence, abuse of religious authority, the carrying out of tasks that are against the law, provoking a foreign nation to hostility against Turkey and acting against the interests of Turkey, under Turkish Penal Code Articles 216, 219, 262, 304 and 305, all of which which carry long prison sentences.
Erenerol and her church comprise a radical neo-nationalist group with close ties to Russia and Iran. The political arm is led by Doğu Perinçek, who was tried and convicted on multiple charges of clandestine activities in the past but was saved by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a secret coalition agreement in the aftermath of corruption investigations that incriminated Erdoğan and his family members. In parallel to the criminal complaint filed by Erenerol, a defamation campaign against Bartholomew I and the Eastern Orthodox Church was also launched by Perinçek’s Aydınlık daily in several smear articles. On January 7, 2019 the paper claimed Bartholomew I had violated the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which established the borders of Turkey largely as they exist today and defined the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The history of the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate goes back to the 1920s, when the Turkish state decided to create it in partnership with some in the Turkish-Greek community. The goal was to undermine the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and Father Eftim Erenerol, founder of the fake patriarchate, grandfather to Sevgi Erenerol and a village priest from Cappadocia, was chosen by the Turkish security establishment to run the newly established “independent” church.
In 1924 Eftim moved to Istanbul, where his family was given the Panayia Kafatiani Church and the Hristos Church, which were illegally seized from their owner, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Hristos Church was returned to the patriarchate in 1947, only to be confiscated and bulldozed later on for road enlargement. Compensation was paid to the Erenerol family foundation instead of the Eastern Orthodox community.
In 1965 Selçuk Erenerol, the father of Sevgi Erenerol, occupied another two churches, the Hagios Nicholaus (St. Nicholas) and Hagios Ioannis Prodromos (St. John the Baptist), which were also owned by the Greek minority. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has long been asking the Turkish government to return these churches confiscated by the Erenerol family enterprise. None of the leaders of the Turkish church were recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Sevgi’s grandfather, father and other family members who run the church have all been excommunicated. The only backer of the church has been the Turkish state, which unlawfully transferred the deeds of seized properties to the foundation run by the Erenerol family.
Of the three churches the Ereneol family controlled, Hagios Ioannis Prodromos was rented to the Syrian community, while Hagios Nicholaus was abandoned. Panayia Kafatiani, the headquarters of the Turkish Patriarchate, has become a hub for neo-nationalists to plot and scheme rather than for any religious or spiritual services. The church’s name was changed to Mother Meryem Central Church in 2006.
In 1992 Selçuk Erenerol asked for a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and demanded recognition of the Turkish church and the right and title to administer it in exchange for the return of the confiscated churches. But he also demanded that he be allowed to keep the income generated by dozens of properties owned by the confiscated churches. Ecumenical Patriarchate officials rejected the proposal. Cast out by the Orthodox community, the Turkish church has failed to attract any followers and reportedly has had no congregation since the 1960s.
In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the church tried to bring young Gagauz Turks from Russia and other former communist bloc countries to Turkey to train and help establish a congregationbut failed to make a difference despite the support given to the group by the Turkish government. The same project was put into motion in October 2018, when President Erdoğan visited Moldova and toured the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. It remains to be seen whether Erdoğan and his neo-nationalist partners can make a difference this time for the fake Orthodox church.
The Erenerol family did not bother hiding the church’s link to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). In an interview he gave to the Siyah ve Beyaz magazine in 1995, Selçuk Erenerol revealed that church officials meet with the intelligence agency every two weeks. The “independent” Turkish Orthodox church is known for a scare-mongering campaign around Christian missionary activities in Turkey and for helping run a smear campaign against non-Muslims. Sevgi Erenerol has been championing this anti-Christian campaign by saying that houses where Bible study was held were on the rise in Turkey. She even joined a lawsuit against slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hirant Dink, who was accused of insulting the Turkish state before he was killed by a nationalist figure in January 2007. Erenerol led a protest against the journalist in front of the courthouse where Dink was tried and even orchestrated an assault by Erenerol’s group, victimizing Dink even further.
When police cracked down on the neo-nationalist group Erenerol was involved with in 2007 and seized a large cache of documents, Sevgi’s name was in the secret documents, and the investigation revealed she was closely connected to other neo-nationalist suspects who were involved in arms and violence. Her church was the center of all these shadowy figures including Veli Küçük, the retired Turkish brigadier general who founded JİTEM, a notorious intelligence arm of the Turkish Gendarmerie. They had been convening at this bogus orthodox church for years to discuss plots. Küçük ordered a hand grenade attack on the Cumhuriyet daily’s İstanbul offices in 2006, followed by a shooting at the Council of State that left a senior judge dead. Both attacks were carried out on Gen. Küçük’s orders, according to court documents from November 2009. Küçük was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison but was released in 2014 with the help of Erdoğan.
This was not the first time the criminal justice system had caught up with him. Küçük is one of the strongest links to the 1996 Susurluk affair, which exposed connections among the Turkish state, the criminal underworld and the Turkish security forces. Hüseyin Kocadağ, a former police chief; Sedat Bucak, a southeastern clan leader whose men were armed by the state to fight separatist violence; and Abdullah Çatlı, an internationally wanted mafia boss, were involved in an accident in 1996 near the small township of Susurluk while riding in the same car. Kocadağ, Çatlı and his girlfriend, a former model, were killed in the accident. No serious arrests followed from the ensuing investigation, which actually exposed, for the first time in modern Turkish history, a gang with links to the state. Küçük had been taken into custody on suspicion of ties to the Susurluk gang, but he was later released.
The wiretap communications that were intercepted show Küçük threatened to have his people blow up the US and Israeli embassies if he were to get arrested. The wiretaps, recorded under court authorization, also portray Sevgi as a hard-line nationalist who coordinated with other distasteful figures including Küçük in the clandestine group. She had been busy fanning hatred and hostility against Christian in Turkey. She often called missionaries “foreign agents.”
Sevgi was detained on Jan. 22, 2008 and formally arrested two days later at her arraignment. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison by the Istanbul 12th High Criminal Court on August 5, 2013. However, just like Gen. Küçük, she was also rescued by the Erdoğan government, which helped formulate new legislation that paved the way for a retrial. With the prosecutors and judges removed from the original case, she was acquitted. Now she is paying her dues by resuming her xenophobic campaigns, while her sister Cancan controls the finances of the bogus Turkish church. Her brother Ümit (Paja) as Efrim IV is officially the “patriarch” of the church.
With the Turkish government backing her, she is expanding the smear campaign against the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Although the criminal complaint she filed did not succeed in court in Istanbul, Sevgi vowed to take the case to the Justice Ministry and continue waging her war on the patriarchate.