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U.S. shouldn’t bow to demands for extradition of Turkish cleric

Turkey has always had a little bit of a problem with the truth. For decades, the Turkish government has denied that it executed the first real genocide in modern times when it eliminated the Christian Armenian population that had been living within the territories of the Ottoman Empire. According to Samantha Power in her magisterial book “A Problem From Hell,” “Beginning in March 1915, [the New York Times] spoke of Turkish ‘massacres,’ ‘slaughter,’ and ‘atrocities’ against the Armenians, relaying accounts by missionaries, Red Cross officials, local religious authorities and survivors of mass executions.”

To this day, Turkey refuses to admit its complicity in the extermination of the Armenians and punishes those who dare to contradict its version of the facts. I am sure that if this column were printed in a place where the Turkish government could see it, there would be letters to the editor and proposed boycotts, the usual modus operandi of our NATO ally.

That last part is important: Turkey is our political ally in the war against Islamic jihad, or so we have been led to believe. It was, until the election of Tayyip Erdogan, the current president of that country, a proudly secular nation with a majority Muslim population. Erdogan, while ostensibly an ally cooperating with the United States in our efforts to stem jihad in the world, is an Islamist, and has shifted his country to a posture that is somewhat less secular and somewhat more “religious.” That religion, of course, is Islam.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a country embracing religion in the public square. As Christians have argued before our own Supreme Court, hostility to religion by the government is just as bad as a religious mandate.

Turkey is also in a difficult position because it is the last frontier, the line of demarcation between east and west. The delicate balance it attempts to maintain between the Islamic and Western worlds is extremely difficult to achieve, and not always successful. That was evident in the recent attacks at the airport in Istanbul, where ISIS operatives detonated bombs that killed dozens of passengers. At the very least, we need to understand the extreme complications in Turkey’s relationships with the United States and its Islamic neighbors.

But that doesn’t mean that the country gets a pass for civil rights violations in the name of “good diplomatic relations.” Powers reminds us that while some courageous Americans attempted to alert the U.S. government about the horrors being perpetrated against the Armenians, chief among them U.S. Ambassador Henry Morganthau, who valiantly tried to convince Woodrow Wilson to intervene, our country did absolutely nothing. World War I was raging, the United States was not yet involved and Wilson was adamant in maintaining neutrality, which meant ignoring uncomfortable facts.

Why am I giving this historical treatise? Thank you for asking.

The reason I am disinterring the bitter shame of Turkey is to put, in context, the case of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in our own Pennsylvanian back yard. Gulen has been described as a religious moderate who has fostered interfaith relations with Turkish Christians and who once met with Pope John Paul II. He is also an educator and founder of numerous charter schools, something that has made him unpopular with people who believe he has been misusing taxpayer funding because many of those schools contain a religious component. However, the U.S. government has vetted Gulen to the point that it granted him a green card, and he has been living in this country for over 15 years.

That doesn’t mean Gulen isn’t controversial. Critics allege that he has been fomenting anti-Erdogan activities in his native country, and there’s no question that he and the Turkish president are bitter political and philosophical rivals. However, Gulen has now been accused by Erdogan of fomenting the failed military coup earlier this month that resulted in almost 300 deaths. Erdogan has demanded Gulen’s arrest and extradition from the Obama administration.

And here is where the sordid Turkish history of denial comes into play. Turkey is quite capable, like many countries, of serious human rights abuses. As an immigration lawyer who has handled countless asylum claims during my 20-year career, I understand the significance of political resistance, and the impact it can have on individuals. Under asylum law, an individual who can prove that he has a credible fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group or political opinion has the right to obtain refugee status in the United States. This is both a moral and legal obligation, because we are signatories to both the International Convention on Human Rights and the Convention Against Torture.

There is, however, a complication. We are also signatories to a treaty with Turkey that requires our government to extradite Turkish nationals living in the United States who have been charged with, or convicted of, or sentenced for certain specific crimes. In this case, it appears that Gulen could be subject to extradition.

On the other hand, it also appears likely that he will be subject to persecution and possible execution if returned to Turkey in the wake of the failed coup. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are in a difficult position, because they do not want to offend a somewhat undependable but extremely important ally. On the other hand, this administration has gone on record, to its great credit, making sure this country is a haven for refugees.

It would be both hypocritical and politically damaging to the candidate who is being supported by the administration and who is a former secretary of state to hand Gulen over to his native land without considering, under the extradition process, whether he is likely to suffer persecution.

As a green card holder, he wouldn’t really be required to go through the formal asylum process. And it might be premature to assume that he would, in fact, be subject to persecution. There are exceptions for people who give material support to terrorists, and if Gulen is proved to have had a hand in the failed coup, he might be ineligible for any favorable consideration.

But to simply bow to the demands of the Turkish government and ignore the principles on which this country was based simply for political and diplomatic expediency would amount to ignoring something else as well: the ghostly cries from anonymous, massacred Armenians. Repayment of our debt to them should begin here.

Christine M. Flowers, a lawyer, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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