Turkey’s formal indictment of U.S. Presbyterian Pastor Andrew Brunson is so tenuous and thinly supported it strongly suggests humanitarian groups are justified in their argument that he is a diplomatic hostage rather than a legitimate criminal suspect.
Brunson was arrested by Turkish authorities in October 2016. He was ultimately indicted for allegedly spying for terrorist groups and participating in their illegal activities.
Critics say the indictment, convoluted in structure and byzantine in its suppositions, strings together blatant falsehoods, absurd distortions of Christian beliefs, and wild conspiracy theories about Christian plots to overthrow Turkey, a 99.8 percent Muslim-majority nation.
The entire text of the indictment, in both Turkish and English, can be found here. Evidence in the document that is blatantly political includes:
Example No.1: The indictment largely relies on testimony from witnesses who are not named but rather are identified by code pseudonyms such as “Fire” and “Meteor.” A secret witness with the code name “Prayer,” for example, testifies he saw a “brainwashing” scene he describes thusly: “25 Turkish university students taking an oath by putting their right hands over their hearts, accompanied by the Star-Spangled Banner.”
Example No. 2: The indictment alleges: “The suspect, Andrew Craig Brunson, under the guise of being an evangelical church pastor, rather acted as an agent of unconventional warfare, per the doctrine of intelligence and psychological warfare and … acted within a group of personnel, most of whom had received special training and had military and intelligence backgrounds.” Describing a 50-year-old American missionary-pastor as an undercover operator out of a Tom Clancy novel would be risible, if not for Brunson’s ongoing, brutal imprisonment.
Example No. 3: Turkish prosecutors accuse Brunson of guilt-by-association with the anti-government, FETO/Gulenist movement that is led by the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, now living in Pennsylvania. One of Brunson’s accusers told authorities: “…the suspect, either at the church or at various different cafes in the Alsancak neighborhood — the names of which he could not recall at the time — or several times at the seaside, [was] walking around or sitting and talking with people who were not part of the church congregation, but by their image and appearance, would be characterized as “Fetocu” [supporters of Gulen] because they resembled them in the outward appearance…”
Example No. 4: In an attempt to expose Brunson’s supposed plot to help establish a separate Kurdish State by converting Kurds to Christianity, a witness states that some who attended Brunson’s church services were Kurdish and espouse a “sacred” 13th tribe of Israel consisting of the Kurds. “According to this belief,” it states, “Kurdish people constitute a tribe specially selected and blessed by God.” The reference to the Kurds appears to reflect the historic Turkish animus toward the nation’s Kurdish minority. No evidence is presented, however, that the 13th tribe is part of the theology of Pastor Brunson’s denomination, or that he holds such a belief, or that he ever espoused it.
Example No. 5: Yet another Turkish government claim against Brunson is based the biblical account of a future Battle of Armageddon when Jesus Christ will return bearing a sword. The indictment states, “While these events are occurring, from the other side an antichrist will arise in the Middle East, to the North of Israel, who will be Satan’s emissary, gather hundreds of thousands behind him, and the battle of Armageddon will begin between the two sides.” The document then points out that Turkey lies to Israel’s north — as do many other nations. It states: “For the last year, Protestant websites have had pictures of President Tayyip Erdoğan titled, ‘Antichrist has come.’” It does not specify those websites, whether they have any ties to Christian organizations or Rev. Brunson’s denomination specifically; nor does it present evidence he holds such a view himself.
Example No. 6: The indictment’s Armageddon account, moreover, appears to suggest that Christians support or are indifferent to the slaughter of non-believers. It singles out Calvinist, evangelical, and Mormon believers as “most aggressive,” stating: “They see nothing wrong with the destruction of the non-elect — those who are not connected to their churches.”
Example No. 7: Perhaps most incredibly, the indictment states that a shadowy organization named CAMA has control over all U.S. church workers abroad. It also appears intensely anti-Mormon — Brunson is an evangelical Protestant — stating: “In the United States of America, institutions such as the CIA, FBI, and NSA are members of CAMA, so that those who serve under the name of the Mormons or other churches are actually using the church as a temporary screen. The essential purpose is to do activities of the CAMA organizations. This structure inside the CIA, FBI, and NSA is known as the ‘Mormon Gang’ by the U.S. public, and this term ‘Mormon Gang’ is used often in America social media.”
To anyone even vaguely familiar with the complexity of America’s religious landscape — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, evangelical, reformed, mainline, etc. — the notion that any one organization could represent, let alone control, all U.S. missionaries abroad across all faiths and denominations is simply mind-boggling. And the notion of a religious cabal operating inside U.S. intelligence agencies is absurd.
Overall, critics say, the indictment is so vacuous as to suggest Pastor Brunson is not, in reality, a criminal suspect at all; but rather a hostage and pawn in a power struggle between Erdogan and his political enemies, who is being illegitimately held captive based on trumped up evidence. Reinforcing that conclusion is Erdogan’s statement that should the United States hand over his enemy Gulen, he would make arrangements for Pastor Brunson to be released in return.
Powerful voices continue to speak out on Brunson’s behalf, including President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, dozens of Congressmen and Senators, and more recently, 100 members of the European Parliament.
Brunson’s status as a victim of what the members of the European Parliament term “hostage diplomacy” was reaffirmed during a 11-hour May hearing on his case, during which no defense witnesses were permitted to testify on his behalf.
Afterward, the USCIRF’s Jolley remarked: “Today’s 11 hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life. Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”
As the Brunson story unfolds, the stage is being set for another Turkish drama. In a bid to bolster his one-man rule, President Erdogan has called for a snap election on June 24.
In the past, he has faced weak opposition and could expect a virtually unopposed victory. Times, however, have changed. Muharrem Ince, the opposition party’s candidate, is a fierce Erdogan critic. And he is speaking boldly enough to be heard.
Al Jazeera reports: “Ince has vowed to create a new constitution, which will, he says, reinstall a strong parliamentary system with a strong sense of democracy and the rule of law, provided that he is elected president. He has also promised a ‘free, scientific, secular and democratic’ educational system.
“Referring to the case of the U.S. Pastor Brunson, who is said to be one of several examples where Turkey is employing ‘hostage diplomacy’ to further its objectives, Ince said: “‘Above all, Turkey will become firstly a state of law.’”
Today, speculation increasing that the upcoming election may be the downfall of Erdogan’s dictatorial regime. This would, in turn, deliver Pastor Andrew Brunson from his miserable prison cell.
As for the outrageous indictment against him, in a recent interview with Ahval TV, Turkey expert Aykan Erdemir predicted, "It would be extremely difficult for Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to argue" that Brunson "is a spy, or a coup plotter.”
He added: “No single piece of evidence the 62-page of indictment indicates that. It is impossible for any U.S. official to take this seriously."
But as long as Brunson remains locked up in a Turkish prison, they must.
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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