A Turkish court refused on Wednesday to release American Pastor Andrew Brunson from his nearly 2-year imprisonment, despite mounting evidence that the indictment against him is a patchwork of poorly crafted fiction and anti-Christian slurs.
President Donald Trump’s tweeted response summed up the travesty succinctly, "A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong and his family needs him!"
President Trump’s voice joined that of other well-informed observers who are equally outraged by the pastor’s unjust imprisonment.
Brunson was arrested in October of 2016 and charged with participation with the "Fethullahist Terror Organization" (FETÖ), a group the Turkish government holds responsible for a failed 2016 coup attempt.
He is also accused of affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
To date no evidence beyond hearsay has been presented to support the accusations.
If found guilty, Rev. Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison.
The pastor’s indictment cobbles together a dizzying collection of blatant falsehoods, absurd theological distortions, and wild conspiracy theories about Christian plots to overthrow the Turkish government.
The entire text of the indictment, in both Turkish and English, can be found here.
Reflecting the spuriousness of Turkey’s claims, the U.S. Government has been openly seeking Rev. Brunson’s release from Day One, including statements by President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and several senators and congressmen.
Over 100 European Parliament members have signed a letter demanding his release.
On July 18, Philip Kosnett, U.S. charge d’affaires in Turkey, said in a written statement: "I’ve read the indictment, I’ve attended three hearings. I don’t believe that there is any indica:tion that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity. Our government remains deeply concerned about his status, as well as the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rules."
Yet despite flimsy evidence and U.S. government protests — including congressional threats to deny shipment of F-35 aircraft to Turkey’s military — Brunson remains behind bars.
In a remarkably blunt statement, U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga declared, "The government of Turkey continues to make a mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson. Today I was hoping to see the judge order his complete release and put an end to the miscarriage of justice that Pastor Brunson’s entire case represents. Turkish authorities still have not provided one good reason for depriving Pastor Brunson of his liberties. The Trump Administration and the Congress should continue to apply pressure, including using targeted sanctions against officials connected to this case, until Pastor Brunson is released."
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Turkey expert Aykan Erdemir told Newsmax:
"Pastor Brunson is one of the dozens of Western nationals and residents who have been arrested in the aftermath of Turkey’s 2016 abortive coup to be used as bargaining chips as part of President Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy. Erdogan admitted himself that he is interested in using Brunson as part of a swap deal with the U.S.
"I consider Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy the worst foreign policy tactic in the history of the Turkish Republic. It has damaged Turkey’s global image and put the country in the same league with rogue states such as Iran and North Korea."
Meanwhile, a Bloomberg report, "Court Ruling on Jailed U.S. Pastor Sends Turkish Assets Tumbling," described the judgment’s economic toll, "Turkish assets had been rallying on optimism that Andrew Brunson, whose jailing is a key source of tension between the allied countries, would be set free or deported at the hearing on Wednesday.
"His continued detention has traders bracing for the unknown, as the U.S. prepares a response. Members of Congress and the Senate have been publicly urging stronger actions against Turkey, including sanctions, should Brunson, other American citizens, and Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission continue to be held in jails."
Voice of America reports that the U.S. Congress is threatening to introduce sanctions on Turkey if the pastor is not released.
"Several members of Congress have accused Turkey of hostage taking by seeking to use Brunson as diplomatic leverage. Adding to Congress’s anger, three local employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey are also being held on terrorism charges. . . . Observers warn the continued detention of Brunson now increases the likelihood of Washington imposing measures against Ankara."
I asked U.S.-based Turkish journalist Uzay Bulut for her insights about Turkey’s seemingly arrogant and unyielding stance:
"Erdogan’s regime is punishing Pastor Brunson for being a Christian and an American citizen," she explained. "The Turkish government is using Brunson as a bargaining chip to make the U.S. administration extradite Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who was once Erdogan’s ally. And pro-government media in Turkey is viciously demonizing Brunson as a 'terrorist leader' and a 'spy' hostile to Turkey.”
Uzay Bulut continued, "These things are happening in a country which is a NATO member that considers itself a worthy candidate to belong to the EU. Turkish government officials think that no matter what they do, they will never be held accountable. And, in fact, the long-standing impunity for Turkey’s past and present crimes is what makes Turkey behave in such an irresponsible and unethical way."
Lela Gilbert is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning writer, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians," and "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." Follow her on Twitter @lelagilbert. For more from her Faith a Freedom blog, Click Here.
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