The cleric next door: Pocono neighbors weigh in on Fethullah Gülen, the man Turkey wants back
Fethullah Gülen, the 80-year-old Turkish leader of a religious offshoot of Islam, has lived in exile in the Pocono Mountains for 20 years. He spends his days praying, writing, and entertaining visitors.
SAYLORSBURG, Pa. — In this rural mountain town, no matter how long ago you moved in, you’re still an outsider.
Be it a transplant from New York or Jersey lured by cheap property here in the ’90s or one of the most wanted men in the Middle East.
Fethullah Gülen, the 80-year-old Turkish leader of an Islamic religious movement, has lived in exile in this pastoral slice of the Pocono Mountains for two decades. He spends his days praying, writing, and entertaining visitors on a 26-acre property on Mount Eaton Road that previously served as a family-run resort for hunters and a summer camp for Muslim youth from New York.
In 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused his former ally-turned-foe of masterminding a deadly and ultimately unsuccessful military coup from 6,000 miles away and has been calling for his extradition ever since. In addition to Gülen’s alleged role in the attempted coup, which he has denied, Turkish prosecutors have accused Gülen of terrorism and other crimes and say his network of followers was behind the 2016 killing of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. After the failed coup, thousands of his followers were rounded up and jailed.
These days, President Donald Trump is under increasing pressure from Erdogan to send Gülen back to his native land, where he would almost certainly face imprisonment, or even death. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose consulting company was paid to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of Turkey and target Gülen, has called him “a shady Islamic mullah” and “a radical Islamist.”
But here in Pennsylvania, residents view the cleric with a mix of ambivalence and curiosity, most catching only glimpses of his property at community dinners and picnics thrown by his staff. Some are suspicious of Gülen and want nothing more than to see the president remove him from their home turf.
“People fear what they don’t know,” said Howard A. Beers Jr., the chairman of the Ross Township Board of Supervisors, the municipal government that oversees Saylorsburg.
As a local contractor, Beers, 61, helped construct some of the buildings on the camp’s property. He also sold the house he grew up in to a Gülen associate for $250,000 in 2014. As a township supervisor nearing his third decade in office, he has continued to deal closely with the Turkish cleric and his followers.
“I can tell you directly that these are the nicest people," Beers said last week after a township meeting at which building inspection fees and a squabble over a local bar were major points of concern. "There’s nothing to fear.”
A Republican, Beers said he doesn’t think that Gülen — now a permanent resident of the United States who holds a green card — should be extradited.
“And I’m in favor of the wall with Mexico, but that’s the difference. This is a matter of legal vs. illegal,” he said. “From what I’ve read, Erdogan is out of control — we don’t know what would be in store for him.”
For now, Gülen is still free to bask in the relative seclusion of this remote hamlet. Its tranquility is largely what drew him to the area in the first place, his aides say.
Gülen declined to grant an interview for this story, citing his ailing health. Y. Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values — the hub for the Gülen movement’s U.S. presence — said the leader came to Saylorsburg in 1999 on the advice of the cardiologist who had been treating his congenital heart disease. The decision was made after a series of treatments at major American hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic.
Back home, danger was mounting as Turkish officials labeled him an Islamic fundamentalist and indicted him for what they called an attempt to overthrow the government.
“Mr. Gülen’s doctors told him if you want to live, you cannot go back to Turkey, because that kind of atmosphere and stress can kill you with your heart condition,” said Aslandogan. “So he listened to their advice.”
That was 20 years ago. At the time, Saylorsburg was already home to the Golden Generation Students Association, a Gülen-affiliated group that ran the property as a Muslim summer camp. The association had purchased the plot in 1993 from the estate of Henry C. Lohmann, a WWII veteran who had run it as “Camp Chestnut,” a cluster of cabins catering to families and hunters.
When Gülen arrived, the camp’s function changed, Aslandogan said, and in subsequent years, the Golden Generation acquired three additional properties along Mount Eaton Road, a total of 38 acres. Only Gülen and a handful of staff live at the main property full time, with a rotating roster of overnight visitors who seek him out to pray and study at his side.
The camp is the unlikely U.S. center of a vast network of enterprises Gülen’s followers run across the globe. The cleric’s tens of thousands followers operate a sprawling international conglomerate of newspapers, television stations, and charter schools, more than 2,000 in all, including more than 100 in this country.
Some of the neighbors puzzle over what happens beyond the main entrance to the property, sharing unfounded rumors of late-night gunfire and helicopter landings. A few slammed their doors shut, weary of press attention.
It might be difficult for folks in Saylorsburg to reconcile the elusive elderly man they sometimes glimpse with the controversial cleric whose presence has catapulted their isolated town into international news.
But two houses down from the camp, Brandy Artz simply described Gülen and his followers as good neighbors. They stuff invitations to Ramadan and Thanksgiving dinners in her mailbox, and often come by with Turkish candy or platters of shrimp and steak around those holidays.
The only disruption on their quiet street has come from anti-Gülen demonstrations, sometimes with planes buzzing overhead pulling banners declaring him evil. The majority of that activity came two years ago, when Erdogan sympathizers spent a few months’ worth of Saturdays parading up and down Mount Eaton Road carrying Turkish and American flags.
“They’d stand in front of our driveway and yell at us: ‘You let a terrorist move in next door!’ ” Artz said. “It’s like, I don’t know where you live, but we don’t have any say over who our neighbors are.”
About a mile away, in the break room of Saylorsburg Lumber, Dave Huhn sized up the negative impression some have of Gülen.
“A lot of people see him as a threat because he’s different,” Huhn said. “But I used to make deliveries back there four or five times a day, and I never saw anything suspicious.”
Huhn has been a frequent attendee of the dinners held inside the camp, ever since Gülen’s associates started patronizing the construction supply store, a local mainstay on Route 115.
He described elaborate feasts where his hosts would “feed us like kings” and send them home with gifts ranging from embroidered towels to coffee sets.
“One year, I mentioned my son was studying Islam in school, and they sent me home with textbooks and CDs to give to his teachers,” Huhn said. “They’ve never been a source of conflict here, except from the conspiracy theories people like to spew forth.”
The take on Gülen is markedly different among some down the road in Wind Gap. A few Turkish families have settled in the town, a borough carved into the side of a mountain that advertises loose tobacco and kerosene on gas-station marquees.
One longtime resident, who asked not to be identified because she feared reprisal from activists on both sides of the Gülen divide, said the cleric’s effect on the area is “horrible.”
“I hope they do deport him. They’re taking over our area,” the woman said. “It seems to me like they’re able to do whatever they want, and nothing is ever done about it."
Tensions were perhaps at a record high in 2015, when the Gap Theatre, the town’s movie house that typically features first-run Disney films, was hired by two groups to show dueling Gülen documentaries in the span of a week.
The first, Love Is a Verb, portrayed the cleric as a man of peace. It was followed by The Gülen, a much more negative depiction whose backers showed it as an apparent counterpoint to the other film.
For each, mostly Turkish audiences from New York descended upon the town, with the locals showing little interest. But the large crowds caused a stir.
“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” said Bill Reese, who took over the Gap as a labor of love 10 years ago. “We had cops driving by to check on the place, and we decided that was enough. We didn’t want to get in the middle of this.”
Gülen is the leader of a religious movement within Sunni Islam called Hizmet that promotes civility and peace. For those who travel to northeastern Pennsylvania to see him, he is a religious figure on par with the pope or dalai lama.
At the same time, some foreign-policy experts say he plays an outsized role in the government and politics of Turkey, where he was a potent force in helping Erdogan rise to power in the 2000s, only to later work against him from his Pocono outpost. Gülen and his supporters dispute that.
During a recent tour of the grounds, Aslandogan scoffed at those characterizations and bristled at the media’s reference to the property as a “compound,” saying it invokes images of generals and despots.
In fact, he said, the wooded grounds are focused on prayer. Past the main guardhouse, a long driveway leads to two large buildings where guests take their meals and pray in ornate halls decorated by artisans flown in from Turkey. The first building was assembled for Gülen’s arrival, but he quickly outgrew it. Its larger, newer counterpart was finished about five years later, both paid for with donations from his followers.
Farther toward the edge of the property is a cluster of townhouses that house Gülen’s guests. Beyond them is a small pond and a playground for children.
On a recent day, Gülen introduced himself to a reporter during a break in the camp’s afternoon prayer, but declined to answer any questions. He sat surrounded by about 20 men, their lips silently moving in recitation of passages from the Quran.
Even in a place of worship, the specter of overseas tension looms. Security cameras are installed at most entrances, and visitors must pass through metal detectors at the two main buildings.
Despite those measures, there have been unwanted visitors. In October, a man tried to sneak past an armed guard, who fired a warning shot at him, Aslandogan said. His account was supported by a brief statement the state police released on the incident. A few weeks earlier, he said, a man tried to talk his way onto the grounds without an appointment. And not long before that, children at the camp reported seeing an armed man walking on the property next door.
Those sightings coincided with increased geopolitical wrangling and fresh calls from Turkish leaders for Gülen’s return.
There are whispers out of Washington that Trump may be inching closer to capitulating for the sake of the country’s relationship with Turkey, a key Middle Eastern ally.
“I’ve been hearing reports for weeks that the president has been anxious to get this off the agenda, and that he’s been pushing people to find a way to get it done,” said Eric S. Edelman, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005. “Erdogan obsessively raises the issue every time they get on the phone.”
So far, Edelman said the evidence Turkey has shared with Justice Department hasn’t been strong enough to persuade federal prosecutors to sign off on an extradition order. But U.S. officials visited Turkey earlier this month to discuss the matter once again.
Aslandogan said Gülen and his followers have faith that American authorities will follow the rule of law.
“As long as the legal path is followed, we are not worried,” Aslandogan said. “But I cannot really say we are not worried, because the Turkish-American partnership and relationship is very important for America. So when the Erdogan government puts on the table the strategic assets and the collaboration and everything, I think that does create a pressure on the U.S. government.”
But, he added, if the government does make overtures to deport Gülen, the cleric’s legal team is “fully confident that they can defend him.”
Until that comes to pass, Gülen will remain here, quietly practicing his faith amid a thick cover of trees, cut off from prying eyes both 6,000 miles away and a few minutes down the road.
Staff writer David Gambacorta contributed to this article.