Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States, is strongly denying allegations that he was involved in Friday's attempted coup in his homeland.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once considered Gulen a close ally, has blamed the attempt to overthrow him Friday on the U.S.-based imam's followers. The Turkish leader is reported to have demanded of President Barack Obama that the United States either arrest or extradite Gulen.
Gulen's Hizmet movement — the name in Turkish means "service" — has an influential presence in Turkish society, including in the media, police and judiciary.
The imam, who now lives in the state of Pennsylvania, said Saturday that he condemned the coup attempt in Turkey "in the strongest terms" and categorically denied he was involved in the plot.
Gulen said he did not know whether any of his supporters in Turkey might have been involved in the abortive attempt to unseat Erdogan.
Speaking to reporters in Saylorsburg, a remote village in eastern Pennsylvania, Gulen noted he left Turkey in 1999 and said he didn't even know who his current followers there were.
'I pray to God for Turkey'
In a statement earlier, Gulen denounced the coup: “Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force. I pray to God for Turkey, for Turkish citizens, and for all those currently in Turkey that this situation is resolved peacefully and quickly.”
“As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades,” the 75-year-old imam added, “it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt.”
Faced with anti-government protests and corruption investigations, Erdogan has blamed his problems in part on Gulen’s followers and foreign powers. Washington has never acted on Erdogan's previous denunciations of Gulen, which U.S. officials said they did not find to be backed by any compelling evidence.
Speaking to reporters in Luxembourg on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. authorities anticipated questions about Gulen's possible role in the current upheaval in Turkey.
Kerry said the United States would review any request for Gulen's extradition, but he also indicated that any move to return the cleric to Turkey would be granted only if Turkey presented evidence of his wrongdoing that could withstand impartial scrutiny.
As an imam in Turkey, Gulen encouraged his followers to become educated, and the movement spread beyond Turkish borders, with hundreds of schools and charities established in other countries.
Since the preacher’s run-in with Turkey’s secular leadership in the 1990s, one of the key aims of his movement's activities abroad has been to leverage its clout back in Turkey.
The ailing cleric is known for promoting a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with strong advocacy of democracy, education, science and interfaith dialogue.
Likened to rights icon King
In an interview with VOA in 2014, Gulen's main spokesman, Turkish-American businessman Alp Aslandogan, compared the preacher to U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“The civil rights movement advocated equal rights for all citizens," said Aslandogan. Similarly, in Turkey, Gulen advocated for equality and equal opportunity for all citizens — observant Muslims and others who historically had been discriminated against.
“The civil rights movement abstained from violence. Similarly, Gulen throughout his life always criticized and rejected violence,” Aslandogan said. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, he said, Gulen denounced al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as “a monster.”
Gulen’s messages of peace and tolerance have won him praise from luminaries in the United States. Two former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and James Baker, and former President Bill Clinton have all spoken at Gulen foundation events.
Gulen's Hizmet movement has been under increasing scrutiny in the U.S. for its links to a group of about 145 charter schools.