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By Patrick Theros
On August 16, 2016, Oriental Review, a Moscow-based website, published an article entitled “Does Turkey Need Patriarch Bartholomew?” and attributed it to Ambassador Arthur Hughes, a distinguished retired American diplomat. The article laid out a cleverly phrased argument that linked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch and first among all Orthodox Prelates, may have colluded with the partisans of Fethullah Gulen to support the failed military coup of last July. To lend credibility, the article included a photograph and biography of Ambassador Hughes and asserted that the Ambassador had submitted the article voluntarily. After publication, Mr. Andrey Fomin, who signed as “Founding Editor” of Oriental Review, sent Ambassador Hughes an email indicating that it had published the article.
The message came as a great surprise to Ambassador Hughes who had certainly NOT submitted the article and in fact was completely unaware of its existence. He wrote immediately to Mr. Fomin pointing out that he was not the author, had never submitted and demanding Oriental Review remove it from the website. An important note: in the course of a thirty year foreign service career Ambassador Hughes never had an assignment involving Turkey or the Patriarchate even tangentially and turned to me for assistance.
Mr. Fomin responded after a short delay, made an excuse that the email address coincided with the one that Ambassador Hughes used to protest and suggested the Ambassador should change his email provider! Oriental Review removed the article from its website but did not accede to Ambassador Hughes’ request that it post a disclaimer that the article was fabricated. The article then popped up on a number of websites associated with the Russian Orthodox Church and finally a legitimate European news blog, euractiv.com, none of which apparently bothered to check its authenticity with the alleged author. After a game of whack-a-mole these sits downloaded the article one by one but only euractiv.com appears to have acknowledged the fabrication. Shortly thereafter, Ambassador Hughes discovered that someone had created a fake Facebook account in his name and republished the offending article. At about the same time, the article appeared on Fethullah Gulen’s website adding further credence.
At this point, developments took a more sinister turn. A Turkish government owned newspaper, Aksam, reported the article – again attributing it to Ambassador Hughes – and analyzed it indicating clear evidence that Gulen and the Patriarch colluded in the failed coup attempt because Turkey had repaired its relations with Russia. Aksam argued that the Patriarch had differences with Moscow that were ill-served by the rapprochement. The Patriarchate went to court obliging Aksam to retract but as the saying goes “mud sticks.”
The campaign to propagate the fabricated article required a degree of technical sophistication and a singularity of purpose that indicates both a very competent hacking operation and a well-thought out campaign to give it credibility in the circles who had the most to gain by harming the Patriarch.
So who did it? Three obvious suspects (by organization not name) leap to mind. Turkish official operatives could easily have done this to give President Erdogan plausible cover for taking action against the Patriarch. Mr. Erdogan has lately reversed his earlier benign approach to Christianity in Turkey. He retracted permission to allow the Patriarchate to conduct liturgy at the Sumela Monastery in Pontos and has seized land belonging the Syriac Christian Mor Gabriel monastery in southeastern. He has apparently decided to pander more to his Islamist constituency, which follows a Wahhabist tradition that does not tolerate the existence of non-Muslim minorities and institutions in Muslim countries. This contrasts with traditional Islam, including that practiced by the Ottoman Empire that guaranteed religious rights to Christians and Jews by law if not always in practice.
The operation could have originated in Russia, which has been at odds with the Patriarch over Church jurisdictions and wishes to estrange Erdogan further from the West. If Erdogan jails or expels the Patriarch Moscow might reason this would cripple his ability to block their ambitions. Such an act would also force Europeans and Americans to denounce the Turks and drive them closer to Russia. Russia has proven technical capacity and a long history of provocations.
Finally, Gulen himself may have decided that involving the Patriarch strengthens his cause. It both burnishes his credentials in the West as an Islamic moderate and complicates Erdogan’s efforts to seek Gulen’s extradition from the United States.
Whether this operation originated either in Ankara or in Moscow, the threat to the Patriarch remains the same. Erdogan has clearly shifted away from his previous policy of dialogue with the Patriarchate. He had lifted the ban on liturgies in isolated Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries in Turkey and raised serious hopes about reopening Orthodoxy’s most important theological seminary at Halki. He had also reduced the political temperature in his dealings with Greece. Now he has embarked on a purge of all real or imagined domestic opposition and no longer benefits from a benevolent policy towards the Patriarchate. In fact, he may see benefit from doing Moscow some favors, such as crippling the Patriarchate, which have no internal cost. He could figure that he has the whip hand over the EU (and Greece) threatening to unleash hordes of refugees across the Aegean. He has already demonstrated the United States will do nothing to threaten Turkish cooperation against ISIL, however problematic in execution.
Paradoxically, the Patriarchate may be best served if Gulen inspired the article and even better if Erdogan believes that Gulen did so. In that case, Erdogan would probably conclude that he would play into the hands of the man he has declared Turkey’s bete noire if he moved against Patriarch Bartholomew personally or against the Patriarchate as an institution.
Theros serves currently as President and Executive Director, US Qatar Business Council, Washington; General Partner, Theros & Theros LLP, Washington; Representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to the United States; member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and member of the Order of St. Andrew.
Theros was a career Foreign Service Officer from 1963 to 1999. Key positions he held in the Foreign Service include Ambassador to the State of Qatar, 1995–1998; Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, responsible for the coordination of all U.S. Government counter-terrorism activities outside the United States, 1993–1995; Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command, 1993 -1991; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political Officer in Amman, 1987–1991; Director, Politico-Military Affairs, State Department, 1983–1986; Chargé d’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi, 1980–1983; and Economic and Commercial Counselor in Damascus, Syria, 1976–1980. He also served in other diplomatic positions in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Nicaragua, as well as in the Department of State.Back to top