The reclusive Muslim cleric blamed by the Turkish government for last week's failed military coup said Sunday that he did not believe U.S. authorities would give in to Turkish demands for his extradition.
But during a rare interview at his gated retreat in the Poconos, Fethullah Gulen, 77, said he would comply if the State Department asked him to leave.
"If a request from what is essentially a dictator is taken seriously in the United States, I think it would run contrary to what the United States stands for," he said, speaking through an interpreter, of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally turned bitter foe.
"But if there is any possibility of a forceful extradition, of course we will oblige," he added. "But I'm not worried about that. I'm not worried that the U.S. government will give credit to claims that Erdogan is making. I will not beg anybody. I have enjoyed my freedom here. I will leave without grudges in my heart."
Gulen, who just two days earlier was accused by Erdogan of plotting the quashed military uprising half a world away, spoke for nearly an hour and a half to a handful of reporters, most of them from foreign media outlets.
Dressed in a dark blazer and blue slacks, the mustachioed cleric addressed a wide array of topics, ranging from his multitude of followers, members of a movement known as Hizmet - or Turkish for "service" - to the pain he has felt as Turkish officials have lain the deaths of civilians at his feet.
"My friends know my sensitivity to any living being," he said. "In my room once there was a bee that was trapped in a cleaning machine. I tried to save its life, but I couldn't and I cried for days. When I saved the life of an ant in my bathroom, I was happy like a child.
"This is my sensitivity and compassion toward any living being. . . . For humans, my sensitivity is so much more."
Again Sunday, Gulen denied any involvement in Turkey's failed coup while condemning "oppression" in his native country.
"During the last two years, our experience has resembled that of Robespierre in France," he said, referring to the ruthless leader of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
Gulen, who teaches a philosophy based in Islamic mysticism mixed with advocacy for education and democracy, has attracted a multitude of followers who run universities, hospitals, and a large media empire in Turkey and, in the United States, a loosely affiliated network of professional associations and charities in addition to charter schools funded by millions of taxpayer dollars, including some in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
But nearly 5,000 miles from Gulen's wooded 26-acre retreat in the rural hamlet of Saylorsburg, Erdogan continued to rail against the man he has labeled a terrorist.
Gulen has been a frequent target of Erdogan, who blames him and his movement for problems plaguing Turkey. Gulen's followers, however, accuse the Turkish president of paranoia and exaggerating the cleric's influence against Turkey's increasingly autocratic regime.
Since Friday, Turkey has detained as many as 6,000 people in a crackdown on alleged coup plotters while funerals were held for some of at least 265 people killed in the failed uprising.
"Once they hand over that head terrorist in Pennsylvania to us, everything will be clear," Erdogan told a crowd massed Saturday night.
At a funeral Sunday, the president vowed to "clean all state institutions of the virus" of Gulen supporters, while crowds chanted "Fethullah will come and pay."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the State Department would consider an extradition request from Turkey that was backed by solid evidence of Gulen's involvement in the coup.
However, speaking Sunday on CNN's State of the Union, Kerry said the United States had not yet received such a request.
"We have not had a formal request for extradition - that has to come in a formal package" sent to the Justice Department, Kerry said. "Give us the evidence. Show us the evidence. We need a solid legal foundation that meets the standard of extradition in order for our courts to approve such a request."
Kerry was adamant that the U.S. had no involvement in the military uprising - as Turkish officials suggested.
"The United States is not harboring anybody, we're not preventing anything from happening," he said. "We think it's irresponsible to have accusations of American involvement when we're simply waiting for their request" for the extradition.
As tensions flared between the two NATO allies Sunday, the residents of Saylorsburg, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it stop off Pennsylvania Route 33 about 88 miles north of Philadelphia, were both bemused and concerned to suddenly find themselves and their world-famous neighbor at the center of an international dispute.
In nearby Wind Gap, American flags festooned lampposts and nearly every home on Broadway, the main drag through town. In nearby Ross Township, residents recalled the last time events there drew the attention of the world: a caught-on-video 2013 attack by a gunman on a township council meeting that left three residents dead.
Those who live closest to the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center described the Gulenists who live on its sprawling grounds as friendly neighbors, who often go door-to-door inviting residents to dinners and events at the retreat.
One 80-year-old man, who did not wish to give his name, said Gulen followers used to bring flowers and Turkish desserts to his wife.
"You don't know what they're up to," he said. "But they do try to make friends. We've never had a problem with them."
Glen Packer, 64, whose house sits next door to the compound, said protesters occasionally gather in front of the retreat, disturbing the neighborhood's typical tranquility. One such group - a crowd of 150 pro-Erdogan demonstrators - rallied across the two-lane road from the property Saturday, draping themselves in Turkish flags and chanting "Obama, send him home" and "a terrorist lives here."
"They seem nice enough," Packer said Sunday of the Gulenists. "But whatever, I just live here."
Gulen came to the Golden Generation retreat, a former summer camp, in the late 1990s at the request of Kemal Ozgur, a microbiologist and a follower of the Gulenist movement. The two met in Minnesota, where Gulen had come to receive medical treatment for diabetes and a heart ailment, which still affects his health. He has remained in Saylorsburg ever since.
Gulen's spokesman, Y. Alp Aslandogan, an urbane, thin man dressed in a dark gray suit, greeted visitors to the retreat Sunday, offering a tour of the grounds and an overview of the Hizmet movement.
While the Gulenists have been on the retreat property since at least the 1990s, property records indicate the Golden Generation purchased the acreage in 2014 for $250,000.
Children ran across carefully manicured lawns, while mustachioed Turkish men in casual clothes strolled across the landscaped acreage, where stone paths curved around gardens and ponds.
"This place has a unique combination of being very peaceful and very tranquil," he said. "It is good for his health. His doctor said the situation in Turkey was too stressful.
These days, Gulen spends most of his time in his quarters - a sparsely furnished set of rooms filled primarily by a mattress on the floor, covered by a thin gray quilt, upon which he sleeps. Shelves of books line walls, competing for space with an electric space heater, a Turkish flag and a small, fringed rug woven in burgundy, blue and white.
Typically, he speaks once or twice a week to followers who flock to the retreat from across the world, Aslandogan said. The speeches are later shared over the internet.
"This is his primary means of communication with the movement," Aslandogan said.
But speaking to reporters Sunday, Gulen downplayed his role as a movement leader.
"I am not the head of them," he said. "Just because I was one of the early people and I'm older than them, they respect me and attribute many things to me, but that is incorrect."
He added: "I see myself as a termite and these participants are also termites. When God wishes, he can enable them to accomplish great things even though they are individually insignificant."
Published on The Inquirer News, 18 July 2016, Monday