After spending two years imprisoned in Turkey on spurious terrorism-related charges, an American pastor was freed last week and allowed to return to the United States.
In October 2016, after more than 20 years of serving as an evangelical missionary in Turkey, Andrew Brunson was summoned to a local police station. He thought he was going to receive a long-awaited permanent residence card. But instead, Brunson was notified he was being deported because he was a “threat to national security.” He was held for 63 days while being denied access to an attorney—and even denied access to a Bible.
Brunson was then taken to a counter-terrorism center in Izmir and then taken to court, where he was accused of having ties to an American-based cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who is being blamed for a coup attempt in July 2016. Brunson had been detained for more than 500 days when, this past March, Turkish prosecutors issued an official indictment calling for him to receive life in prison. “I don’t accept any of the allegations,” Pastor Andrew Brunson told the judge on the first day of the trial in April. “I have never done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
According to Al-Monitor, when Brunson was asked during the trial about his alleged sympathies with Fetullah Gulen, he responded, “This is an insult to my beliefs. I am a Christian. I do not belong to Islamic religious groups. Their aims are different to my aims. I have no connection with any [Gulen-associated] organization.”
Earlier this month, a Turkish court sentenced Brunson to three years and one month in prison, but chose to release him based on his time already served, as well as his manner during the proceedings. Before the verdict, Brunson told the court, “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”
On Saturday, President Trump welcomed Brunson to the Oval Office. The pastor thanked Trump for working to secure his freedom, and then led his family in prayer for the president. “You really fought for us,” Bruson told the president.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said they “welcomed with great satisfaction” Brunson’s release, but warned that we should not lose sight of other religious freedom concerns in Turkey. Earlier in 2018, USCIRF designated Turkey as a country with serious religious freedom violations, placing the country on its Tier 2 list. The ERLC spoke with USCIRF Commissioner and Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga and International Religious Freedom Ambassador Sam Brownback about Pastor Brunson in August on the Capitol Conversations Podcast.
Russell Moore, ERLC president, said that Pastor Brunson’s release is an answer to prayer. Moore continued, “We pray that this crisis will remind us to continue to pray for those imprisoned by oppressive regimes around the world because of their religious faith.”