The priest’s voice echoed off the crumbling plasterwork of the sanctuary, as only two worshippers took part in a recent Sunday service in Istanbul’s Meryem Ana Church. The low turnout is typical these days. The Turkish Orthodox Church is possibly the country’s smallest Christian denomination, and certainly its most controversial.
Turkish prosecutors allege the church, which traces its roots to the upheaval surrounding the founding of the Turkish republic, is connected to an ultra-nationalist movement, known as Ergenekon, which reportedly plotted to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Church spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol, sister of the current patriarch, has been imprisoned since 2008 on charges that include establishing and directing an armed terrorist organization as part of the supposed Ergenekon conspiracy. A host of ultra-nationalist groups established in 2004 and 2005 had “the same” founders, and “they were all gathering at the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate,” claimed Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer.
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Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.