How Turkey’s war on Gülenists was exported to Romania

Michael Bird, Vlad Odobescu / 01 April 2017
As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan purges so-called terrorists from the state and military connected to his arch rival, exiled-cleric Fethullah Gülen, we examine how this conflict has reached Romania

Around 250 were killed in Turkey's failed coup of July 2016. Since then over 40,000 faced arrest. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is summer 2016. A Turkish man in Romania working as a teacher is expecting his first child. But his wife is suffering complications. She leaves to her home country to be close to her family and specialist medical care.

In the meantime, on 15 July 2016, elements within the Turkish army launch a violent uprising to kick out the ruling government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The putsch is quashed by military, police and citizenry loyal to Erdoğan: 1,535 people are injured and another 250 killed.

Turkish authorities blame the failed coup on members of a parallel state headed by Erdoğan’s nemesis, 75 year-old former Imam Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The cleric’s ideology is inspiration for thousands of education centres over 160 countries. In Romania, the father is working at one of these schools.

After the baby is born, the mother is looking forward to returning to Romania, to see her husband and present him the newborn.

But to travel with the child, she needs the written permission from her husband in an official document.

The teacher goes to the Turkish Consulate in Romania for the paper, but is told by staff that “nothing can be done”. Eventually, the Embassy gives him a form to complete, which offers him hope.

During the process, an official at the Embassy asks for his passport.

When he hands this over, his passport is cancelled. This means he cannot travel anywhere outside of Romania.

The Embassy offers no further explanation for their action.

This is not an isolated case.

Over 300 Turks and their families in Romania who are connected to the network of Fethullah Gülen are fearful they will be stripped of their passports - as Turkey's purge of "public enemies" at home is exported westward.

Message leak: Religious affairs counsellor asked to 'map out' Gülen network in Romania

Following the July 2016 coup attempt, a memo from Turkey’s Counsellor for Religious Affairs in Bucharest, Osman Kilic, was sent to his boss at the Presidency of Religious Affairs (known as Diyanet) in Ankara on 27 September 2016.

On request, Kilic maps out the extent of Gülenist activity in Romania.

This document includes a list of 11 schools, kindergartens and one university that are part of the Lumina Educational Institutions, which have been active in Romania since 1994.

The schools, accredited by the Romanian Ministry of Education, are labelled as part of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure (FETÖ/PDY).

This is recognised as a terrorist network by Turkey, but nowhere else, including the EU. In fact, the name FETÖ/PDY does not even exist anywhere, except in the language of the Erdoğan-led state.

The Religious counsellor - appearing to act in a role of information gathering unsuited to his office - claims this ‘terrorist network’ organises “Olympiads” for children and cultural activities “to escalate its presence in the local and international media and firmly establish its image as an educational institution”.

The Turkish Embassy in Bucharest has stated to us it “does not have any information” about this correspondence. But documents from the same cache, seen by the European Investigative Collaborations Network, have been confirmed by other Turkish diplomatic missions.

Labelled as ‘terrorist’ by the Turkish state, the Lumina hosts 3,500 children across 11 private schools throughout Romania, and 700 staff. Its children have been offered places at Harvard, Princeton and MIT.

Gülen schools are present in over 150 countries. But Turkey has closed down 2,000 in its own nation - and converted them into state-run religious schools.

In Romania, the schools do not operate as a cult of the exiled cleric. There are no photos of Gülen in the schools. Nor are his books taught as set texts.

“Gülen was never mentioned once at the high school,” says former student Claudiu Revnic. “Not in or out of school. I never heard of Gülen until I left.”

Fatih Gürsoy, President of Lumina Educational Institutions, claims there is no financial transaction between Lumina and other parts of the Gülen movement.

“Even if we are all Gülenist and think as Mr Gülen thinks, the schools are not directly related,” says Gürsoy. “These is no organisation of ‘Gülenist’ schools. Mister Gülen does not know how many schools there are or how many people are working there. We build the schools because of his ideas. Einstein is an authority on physics, but laboratories that use these ideas do not belong to Einstein.”

Since July 2016, senior staff at the schools allege the school has suffered a campaign of persecution and parents have been blackmailed by the local Turkish Embassy.

This resulted in 140 children leaving their schools.

Such a claim is denied by the diplomatic representatives.


"Mister Gülen does not know how many schools there are or how many people are working there. We build the schools because of his ideas," Fatih Gursoy, Lumina President

“The parents are really angry, but they can’t do anything”

The International School of Bucharest has 750 students from 40 nationalities and operates as a non-profit institution in leafy surroundings at the edge of the capital.

It offers a British curriculum and an International Baccalaureate, with British staff running its primary and secondary departments. Its director Sinan Kosak shows me the accreditations, framed on his wall, from the Council of International Schools and the Romanian Ministry of Education.

“This is a good indicator for us that we don’t have a hidden agenda,” he says, “that we are not doing anything illegal. We only want to do education, nothing else, nothing to do with politics.”

After the coup in 2016, 70 students left the school. Many of those leaving were due to “pressure and blackmail” from the Turkish Embassy, states Kosak.

“Parents stated that they have been visited by counsellors or diplomats from the Embassy and they told them that if their kids finish their school here, they will not be accepted by universities in Turkey,” says Kosak. “They told businessmen they won’t be able to import or export goods from Turkey or the embassy won’t release their passports or other official documents.”

A top diplomatic official even visited one parent in his workplace. The parent could not stand the pressure anymore, and told Kosak he had to withdraw his child because “they didn’t give me another choice”.

Syrian and Indian parents who had relatives in Turkey or worked with Turkish companies also removed their children. Kosak calls this a “human rights violation” and adds: “Unless we are proved to be illegal or terrorists - no one has a right to say anything about our school.”

The Turkish Embassy in Bucharest denies any interference. In a statement to us, it outlined: “The Embassy doesn’t put such pressures or have discussions of this kind with parents. After the attempted coup of July 15, several families wanted to dissociate themselves from any connection with this movement, FETÖ, and have taken the initiative themselves to withdraw their children from these schools. It was and is an independent process: parents do it because they want to.”

Kosak says this the school is thriving, as they have 160 new students this year. But the move is difficult for children who are used to one system for up to 16 years and suddenly have to change.

“The parents are really angry, but they can’t do anything,” he says. “They have no other choice. They want to think about their children’s future.”

Lumina is closing its Bucharest-based South East Europe University “due to pressure” from the Turkish authorities on its sponsors, the directors argue. The institution was co-financed by companies from Turkey and Romania. Some of these business owners are now in jail in Turkey, while Gürsoy adds about the others: “[The Embassy] told them they were supporting terrorism by supporting the university."

The Embassy denies any involvement with the actions of the institution’s funders.

“There were no such discussions between representatives of the Embassy and the sponsors of the University,” it claims.

Without sponsorship, Lumina had to close the university. This is the last academic year. It will convert into a high school in Autumn 2017.


Necdet Celik: his daughter cannot receive her birth certificate from Embassy

Computer says ‘No’

Gülen-linked businesses, teachers and their families are also faced with the pressure to stay in Romania indefinitely, due to what they call a freeze on the release of official documents from the embassy.

Necdet Celik is a former journalist from Turkish state TV TRT, whose wife works at Lumina. He has written critically of Erdoğan on his Twitter account.

But he was surprised to find that this bureaucratic shutdown affected his 20 year-old daughter.

“After the failed coup, I realised that my daughter’s passport had nearly expired, and that my wife needed to file for [Romanian] citizenship,” he says. “Two documents were missing: the criminal record and the birth certificate.

"First, my daughter went to the Embassy, to extend her passport. She waited for an hour, and after that she was told that the system doesn’t work. She went there for a second time: ‘It doesn’t work, we will inform you’- she was told again. And I understood that something had changed. Since August, nothing has happened.”

Director of the ISB Sinan Kosak has also faced obstruction when attempting to obtain his birth certificate. Last year, he queued at the embassy to file his request in a procedure that should have only taken a day. But he was told “the system is blocked”.

“Others in line were getting papers,” he says, “obviously the system was not working for me.”

Many Turks connected to the schools have told us they cannot obtain official documents for themselves or their children because the Embassy has told them “the computers are not working”.

One journalist at pro-Gülen newspaper Zaman believes they are part of a blacklist of at least 400 individuals in Romania linked to Gülen groups.

“There are situations where children cannot get vaccinated because they don’t have the necessary documents,” he says.

Passport “seized by Romanian authorities on request of Embassy”

On 25 March, Turkish businessman Soner Cesur was flying from Bucharest Otopeni airport to Warsaw, when the Romanian authorities seized his passport at the border.

Cesur has been a member of the administration council of a Gülenist University in Konya, Anatolia.

While the tensions in Romania between pro- and anti- Gülenists has remained an intra-ethnic affair between Turks, this was the first clear example of a Romanian official acting on the requests of Turkey.

How did this happen? The Romanian Foreign Ministry says it was transmitting a notification from the Turkish Embassy to the border police, under its international obligations.

The Embassy did not deny it had made such a demand. But added that it respects personal data and cannot comment on “consular arrangements” concerning Turkish citizens.

A journalist for pro-Gülen news website Zaman does not believe this is Romanian policy, but he is concerned. “How can Romania accept to play Erdoğan’s game?” he fears.

No teachers from Lumina have visited Turkey since the coup. “No one is taking that risk,” adds Kosak. “If we had difficulties with the Embassy, we don’t know what will happen at the border.”

All fear arrest if they return. Fatih Gürsoy’s brother has been in detention for 11 months. He has not yet seen a judge.

Meanwhile Fatih Göktas is the general director of “Lumina” and a former physics teacher. His brother - an inspector in the Ministry of the Interior - has also been arrested.

“My brother’s children studied in Gülen schools - this is his guilt,” he says.

Around 45,000 have been arrested in Turkey since the coup attempt.

“Let’s say we are guilty, and we are terrorists: what about our children?” says Gürsoy. “They are also terrorists? I told [the Turkish ambassador in Bucharest] we have been here in Romania for over 20 years - show me one example where Lumina schools did an activity against Turkey or against Romania or another country? When one teacher did something wrong, please show us. If you find something, we are ready to close all our schools. But they could not give any example. Because there is not one.”

Turkish journalist “suffers death threats” in Romania

There is pressure on the Turkish media in Romania. The Diyanet document from September pinpoints the weekly Zaman newspaper, a news portal in Romanian “Romanya Haber” and a website “turknewsro” as part of the network.

Zaman is an overtly pro-Gülenist newspaper which has been seized in Turkey by supporters of the AKP. In Romania, the media group closed down its print edition in March 2016, but still runs a website, which is blocked in Turkey.

A journalist at Zaman, who speaks anonymously, has received death threats such as “you will never be able to go back to Turkey” and “We won’t give you even water”. The newspaper has removed its logo from the street entrance.

Now there are only two employees, down from 11 in its heyday. The advertising from Turk-related companies has collapsed.

“Turkish businessmen in Romania are afraid because all of them have connections with Turkey,” says the journalist. “They have businesses in both countries. The pressure from the Embassy is huge.”


Controversy over claims of 'withdrawn' theologians from Bucharest Central Mosque

Mosque allegation: FETÖ-supporting theologians have been “withdrawn”

Mosques in Bucharest have also been under observation from Diyanet, according to the document leaked to us - and the Religious Affairs department has been active in influencing the personnel change.

“As a result of the measures we undertook,” says the memo from Diyanet’s Osman Kilic, “a few FETÖ-supporting theologians were withdrawn” from two mosques in south Bucharest.

Osman Aziz is an ethnic Romanian Turk and the Imam from the central mosque in Bucharest. He does not want to comment on the effects of the attempted coup in Romania.

“We are not getting into political issues, we are religious people,” he says. “We are Romanian citizens and only after that Muslims. Romania is here, Turkey is there.”

But the Zaman journalist is more wary.

“Some of Erdoğan’s imams are here already, others will join,” he says. “They want Erdoğan’s imams in all mosques in Romania.”

Eight months without seeing child for first time

Now the Turkish teacher who became a father shortly before the coup is considering “all possible options” to re-unite with his family.

This would include a formal divorce that would allow his wife and kids to travel without his permission.

“But we’re not sure that this will work,” he says.

He may try to obtain Romanian citizenship, but needs to wait eight years to complete the legal requirement for residency.

This means he cannot leave the country. He is an example of what the director of the school network Lumina, Fetih Göktas, calls “a prisoner of Romania”.

After eight months, he has still not seen his child.

Background: from a marriage of convenience to a failed coup

Starting in 2007, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan and the former Imam Gülen were in a political alliance. Gülen’s network was instrumental in helping Erdoğan purge Turkish state institutions of critical elements, through the arrest of journalists, activists and military generals.

But by late 2013, the Erdoğan/Gülen war had been brewing for a couple of years. It exploded in late 2013, when Gülen followers in the police and judiciary arrested several of the Prime Minister's Justice and Development Party (AKP) MPs and businessmen close to the party.

The cleric's followers then leaked wiretapped conversations suggesting widespread bribery, including by Erdoğan himself.

The Erdoğan-backed AKP fought back. They thought up a new name for their rivals, the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure (FETÖ/PDY), designating it an official enemy of the state.

On 15 July 2016 elements within the Turkish army launched a VIOLENT UPRISING to kick out the AKP and Erdoğan. Initially, 1,535 people were injured and another 250 killed: 173 civilians, 62 police officers, and five soldiers.

Turkish authorities blamed members of FETÖ.

However this was not improvised. Prior to the coup, the President has been planning to use the Supreme Military Council meeting on August 1 to cleanse the body of Gülen’s influence.

A Gülen-inspired cadre in the military discovered security service plans to conduct raids against hundreds of soldiers close to them, and launched what has been called a pre-emptive strike.

Erdoğan has called for Gülen’s extradition from the USA, but the cleric denies accusations he was behind the failed revolt.

Following the coup, Erdoğan launched a massive purge of academic, military and state institutions. As of December 2016, 40,832 people were arrested in Turkey on FETÖ charges.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told the European Council that he believes the Turkisj state had lists of persons it wished to arrest before the actions of mid-July: “[the lists were] available already after the event, this indicates that this was prepared to be used at a certain stage”.

International Sweep

Netherlands: religious affairs attache "expelled"

On 14 December last year, the Turkish attaché for religious affairs in the Turkish embassy in The Hague, Yusuf Acar, was expelled by the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs. This was because he collected data about alleged Gülenists and sent them to his bosses in Ankara.

He had also said that the Dutch Christian Democrat Party (CDA) was a "hotbed of Gülentists". The Foreign Affairs minister called this "completely unacceptable".

Belgium: bus attack

The July coup had a massive impact on the attendance at Gülenist schools in Belgium. In Brussels, the main Gülenist school lost 117 pupils from 440 in September and in Charleroi 75 from 220. There have been death threats against teachers, and a school bus was set ablaze.

Mauritania: "check out Senegal"

In the west African Islamic Republic of Mauritania, the representative of Turkish religious affairs office Diyanet suggested to his President to appoint a counsellor in neighbouring country Senegal.

The reason for this new position? To “spy” on the Gülenists network there - an activity which is well beyond the remit of a religious appointment.

In a message from September 2017, it states: “Finally, there is talk that the structure beyond [Gülenist] activities in Mauritania, especially in Senegal, the most important country in West Africa, is very powerful. Thus, it is recommended that our presidency concentrate particularly on Senegal and promptly appoint a Counselor for Religious Affairs for Senegal.”

We sent an email to the office in Mauritania to confirm this information, but received no reply.

DOSSIER: Politics