Poconos cleric denies involvement in Turkey coup attempt

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Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa.

 

Tension heated up Saturday between the U.S. and Turkey over who to blame for the country's failed military coup even as the reclusive Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government holds responsible denied from his Poconos compound that he had anything to do with the plot.

Fethullah Gulen, a former ally turned bitter enemy of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, condemned the violent attempt to overthrow the government of his native country during an interview with the Associated Press at his 26-acre gated property in Saylorsburg, Monroe County.

Outside, a crowd of pro-Erdogan protesters gathered around the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, the Islamic enclave founded by Turkish-Americans where Gulen has lived a monk-like existence for nearly a decade.
"In brief, I don't even know who my followers are," Gulen told the AP. "You can think about many motivations of people who staged this coup."

Gulen's denial Saturday came as Erdogan called upon the U.S. State Department to extradite the cleric, saying Turkey had never refused extradition requests for terrorists from the United States. Another official went further, directly blaming the United States for involvement in the plot.

"I have a message for Pennsylvania," Erdogan said in a televised speech with words directed at Gulen. "You have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country."

Secretary of State John Kerry shot back at the suggestion Saturday that the United States had tacitly supported the attempted overthrow by harboring Gulen.

"Public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations," Kerry told his Turkish counterpart, according to a State Department account of their telephone call.

Kerry continued, however, to express support for Turkey's democratically elected government.

Earlier in the day, Kerry, speaking to reporters in Luxembourg, had said the State Department would consider a formal extradition request if Turkey could provide solid evidence of Gulen's involvement in the coup.

Gulen heads a movement with multitudes of followers in the U.S. and Turkey. He has been a frequent target of Erdogan, who blames him and his movement for problems plaguing Turkey.

The cleric's followers, however, accuse the Turkish president of paranoia and exaggerating Gulen's influence against Turkey's increasingly autocratic regime.

Gulen's movement, known as Hizmet — Turkish for "service — teaches a philosophy based in Islamic mysticism mixed with advocacy for education and democracy.

Its followers in Turkey run universities, hospitals, charities, and a large media empire. U.S. adherents lead a loosely affiliated network of professional associations and charities in addition to the charter schools funded by millions of taxpayer dollars, including some in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Even as tanks rolled through Ankara on Friday night, Gulen issued a strong rebuke of the coup.

"Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force," he said in a statement. "As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt."

Gulen arrived in the Poconos some time after leaving Turkey in 1999 when tapes were shown on television showing him urging followers to infiltrate government institutions.

Since then, U.S. officials have appeared to be in no rush to send him back.

A year after Gulen left Turkey, authorities there charged him with leading an earlier plot to overthrow the regime. He was acquitted after a trial in absentia.

Earlier this year, Erdogan sought Gulen's arrest again, accusing him of running a parallel state by urging followers in key positions in the law enforcement and the legal system to instigate a 2013 corruption probe that targeted Erdogan's allies.

In recent months, the animosity between the two men has only grown more pronounced as Erdogan has cracked down on Gulenist-owned organizations and businesses within Turkey.

Details about Gülen's personal life since his arrival in Pennsylvania and his organizations have remained obscure, giving rise to suspicions about his motives both in Turkey and the United States. He is said to be frail and in ill health, suffering from diabetes.

He gained his green card in 2008 after convincing a federal judge in Philadelphia that he was an influential education figure in the United States — a claim further bolstered now that the schools started by his U.S. followers number more than 150.

Late last year, a rival Islamic sect sued Gülen on Turkey's behalf in federal court in Scranton, alleging he was inciting sympathetic followers in his native country to illegally arrest and detain those loyal to Erdogan.

Philadelphia lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., who represented Gulen in the dispute, called the allegations "completely meritless."

U.S. District Judge Robert D. Mariani threw out the case last month, describing it an improper use of U.S. courts.

Since then, the Erdogan government has hired a London law firm has set its sights on Gulenist interests abroad, including the charter school network in the United States.

In recent years, the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education have launched investigations into whether some charter school employees are kicking back part of their salaries to Hizmet, sources close to the probes have said.
Federal agents raided a Gulen charter in Baton Rouge, La., in 2013, but later closed the investigation without criminal charges.

Schools run by Gulen followers typically employ large numbers of Turkish nationals as teachers, administrators, and support staff.

They are among the nation's largest users of H1B visas, generally used to attract foreign workers, especially those with math, science, and technology skills for which there are shortages of qualified Americans.

Officials at Gulen charter schools usually deny that they are part of a network, although staff frequently moves from school to school.

In a 2012 interview with the Inquirer, Bekir Duz, a Turkish national who was a leader of the now-shuttered Truebright Science Academy Charter School in North Philadelphia, denied that the school was part of a network. That 10 of the school's 32 teachers and administrators were from Turkey and had worked at similar charters did not mean the schools were linked, he said.

"It's just like a Chinese restaurant," Duz said. "A person comes from China and starts working at a Chinese restaurant. They know the other Chinese restaurants, and they can go and work at the other Chinese restaurants. It doesn't mean that they are all connected."

Truebright closed in 2015 after state Commonwealth Court upheld the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's decision to order it shut it for poor academic performance.

At least two other charters founded by Gulen followers continue to operate in Pennsylvania: Young Schools of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College and Young Scholars Charter School of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh.
In Luxembourg on Saturday, Kerry told reporters that U.S. officials "fully anticipate" that questions would be raised about Gulen.

"Obviously we would invite the government of Turkey, as we always do, to present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny," Kerry said.

The AP quoted a Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, saying a formal application was already in the works.

"After last night," the official said Saturday, "we have one more thing to add to an already extensive list."

 

jroebuck@phillynews.com 215-854-2608

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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