The Russian libel against the Ecumenical Patriarch

The Russian libel against the Ecumenical Patriarch

One of Turkey’s most zealous pro-government dailies, Akşam, came out with a bizarre headline on Aug. 30: “The Patriarchate-CIA-Gülen Alliance.”

Accordingly, Turkey’s failed coup attempt was cooked up not just by the Gülenist element in the military, as almost all Turks agree by now. Also involved was the CIA, Turks’ usual suspect, and even the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate, the spiritual leader to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Moreover, this “news story” was supposedly based on a solid source: An “article” supposedly written by Arthur Hughes, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

When I read this nonsense, I thought it must be yet another childish and unethical invention by Akşam. The newspaper had made up a similar story right after the coup, demonizing an academic conference on Istanbul’s Büyükada as “the headquarters of the coup.” (Henri Barkey, the academic who was the biggest target in that stupid libel, recently wrote a good piece in the New York Times: “Why Is Turkey Accusing Me of Plotting a Coup?”)

I soon realized, however, this time the real source of the bilge was not Akşam, but a Moscow-based website named “Oriental Review.” It was this website that had actually published an “article” by Arthur Hughes that put the blame for the coup on the Patriarchate, with references to the friendly relations between Fethullah Gülen and His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. 

I got in touch with retired ambassador Hughes in Washington DC, where he is now on the board of directors of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “I had nothing to do with the article. I did not write it, inspire it or submit it, it’s a total fabrication,” he told me. In a written statement, he also said:

“Mr. Andrey Fomin, Founding Editor of Oriental Review, has acknowledged by email that they did not verify whether I in fact had sent the article, expressed regret and removed it from their website. Despite my repeated requests to Mr. Fomin, Oriental Review has not posted a statement indicating that the article in question and my alleged authorship were indeed a fabrication.”

But in Turkey the damage was already done. Readers of daily Akşam, along with many other conspiracy-obsessed Turks on social media, had already added to their pre-existing biases against the Patriarchate, “the Christians,” and the West. (Not to Russia, though. After all, the shameful “news report” in Akşam had carefully underlined that the coup plot was an attempt “to sabotage Turkish-Russian rapprochement.”) 

So what is going on here? 

As I understand it, some Russian propaganda is going on here. One of the purposes seems to be to make Turks even more anti-Western than they have already become. The other seems to be demonizing the Ecumenical Patriarchate, depicting it as a “Trojan Horse” of the CIA, and make its life in Turkey more difficult. I also sense an intra-Orthodox tension here, as it is no secret that the Russian Orthodox Church has a longtime grudge against the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In reality, it is simply ridiculous to think that the Patriarchate, a squeezed institution with a tiny community, could engage in any political plot in Turkey. Yes, the Patriarch once had good relations with the Gülenists, as the latter had a likeable emphasis on “interfaith dialogue,” which worked as good PR at least. But that in itself should mean nothing. Turks should defend their Patriarchate (yes, it is our Patriarchate) against shameless libels from abroad.