Turkey’s national media published a spate of fabricated reports in late August, accusing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of conniving with the CIA in backing the 15 July coup attempt against the Turkish government.

The strongly pro-government Aksam newspaper first broke the alleged “news” in a front-page article on 30 Aug., headlined “Patriarchate-CIA Gulen Alliance.” The story quoted an article posted on the Moscow-based website “Oriental Review.” Allegedly authored by Arthur Hughes, a former US Ambassador to Yemen, the article claimed Hughes wrote on his personal Facebook posting, “The coup was staged by the CIA, Gulen and the Patriarchate.”

The Turkish government has accused the Hizmet movement of US-based Islamic cleric Fetullah Gulen of launching the failed coup and demanded his extradition to Turkey. The Aksam article included a photo of the Patriarch together with Gulen, taken in Turkey in the 1990s when the Muslim cleric had also met John Paul II at the Vatican.

The former ambassador promptly declared the article “a total fabrication”, forcing the Oriental Review editor to admit he had not verified that Hughes himself had submitted it. The article was quickly deleted from the website.

But by then, the majority of Turkey’s national media outlets had published the undocumented claims, which then spread widely through social media.

In a written statement, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared, “The editors of Aksam daily should have known that this unfounded story, which was published with the purpose of inciting hatred against His Eminence, could lead to grave consequences.”

A few days after the failed coup attempt, the Turkish media had posted reports that Patriarch Bartholomew had flown out of Turkey just hours before the uprising began on the evening of 15 July, implying he had prior knowledge of the impending coup. He had in fact left for a vacation retreat in Slovenia, on tickets purchased several weeks earlier.

The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader of 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, although the local Orthodox community now numbers less than 3,000.