The case of an American pastor jailed in Turkey for more than 18 months on terrorism-related charges has finally gone to trial.
“I don’t accept any of the allegations,” Pastor Andrew Brunson told the judge on the first day of the trial. “I have never done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
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.
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.”
The U.S. has a team in Turkey observing the trial, which includes North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms.
“The [Trump] administration is deeply concerned about this case,” Brownback told the press outside the court. “You will continue to see very high-level U.S. government interest in this until he is released.”
The Turkish judge has adjourned the trial and sent Brunson back to prison until May 7.
According to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization that is representing Brunson’s family, the Turkish court had the option to deport Brunson, release him with the condition that he sign-in with local authorities weekly, or imprison him. The judge decided to keep him in prison.
“The government of Turkey—led by an Islamic party—has begun increased crackdowns on Christians,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ, “and Pastor Andrew, if convicted, may face years in prison based on extremely serious—and false—charges. We are launching a global campaign to call attention to his plight demanding that Turkey— a NATO member—release Pastor Andrew without delay.” Several Christian organizations, including ERLC, have joined in this campaign. Seventy-eight members of Congress from the House and the Senate have also written a letter to Turkish President Erdoğan, asking for Brunson’s prompt release.
“Turkey has literally taken the position that Christianization is terrorism,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Cece Heil told CBN News. “They have no specific evidence that Pastor Brunson has committed any crime. The fact that he is a Christian, and specifically a Christian pastor, is what they are equating as terrorism.”
Brunson had been detained for more than 500 days when, this March, Turkish prosecutors issued an official indictment calling for him to receive life in prison. This latest outrage has been strongly condemned by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the administration to redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson’s release,” USCIRF Vice Chairs Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga said. “No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American. We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice.”
When President Trump and Vice-President Pence met with Erdoğan in Washington, D.C. last May, they reportedly raised Bruson’s situation multiple times with the Turkish president.
On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted, “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”