It was an astonishing moment. During the State Department’s first-ever “Ministerial for Religious Freedom” event hosted in Washington, D.C., by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a sudden announcement was made to the audience: After more than 20 months of captivity, U.S. Rev. Andrew Brunson had been released from his Turkish prison cell and was making his way back to his home in Izmir, Turkey.
The stunned crowd rose to its feet, and spontaneous applause erupted. Some audience members cheered. Others wept with tears of joy, gratitude, and relief.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Turkey, a similar outpouring of joy occurred when Rev. Brunson and his wife, Norine, arrived at their home. A crowd of friends, church members, and supporters sang and wept. Some literally danced in the street to welcome him home.
Just one day before, Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline Furnari had spoken tearfully to the Ministerial gathering about her father’s plight.
“[He] has been permanently changed by this experience," Furnari explained. "Even when this ordeal is over, he will never be the same person that he was."
Choked with tears as she spoke, she described the way her father had handled his false imprisonment by displaying "Christ's love" to the world.
"In his trial last week, my father forgave the witnesses who falsely testified against him, saying, 'My faith teaches me to forgive, so I forgive those who testified against me. It is a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ.'"
Then, barely able to speak, she quoted her father's testimony from last week's court hearing.
“Blessed am I as I suffer for Him. Blessed am I as I am slandered. Blessed am I as I am lied about. Blessed am I as I am imprisoned. Blessed am I to share His suffering,'" after she shared those words, audience members wept and prayed with Jacqueline Furnari.
The next day, her father was reunited with her mother in their Izmir home.
And the world watched in joy and amazement.
Turkey expert Aykan Erdemir gave credit to the relentless support of the American people.
“The court’s U-turn, just one week after its decision to remand Brunson until Oct 12, is a response to strong bipartisan reaction from the U.S.,” he tells Newsmax. “[It is] evidence how principled pushback can elicit a more favorable response than appeasement.”
And Secretary Pompeo tweeted, “We welcome long overdue news that Pastor Brunson has been moved from prison to house arrest in Turkey, but it is not enough. We have seen no credible evidence against Mr. Brunson, and call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner.”
Despite Brunson’s release to house arrest, Trump administration officials are making it clear they consider him to be a de facto political prisoner.
President Trump tweeted Thursday that the United States intended to impose substantial sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for Brunson’s imprisonment, which was widely seen as purely political.
“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long-time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man, and wonderful human being,” he stated.
Vice President Mike Pence jumped into the fray as well on Thursday, declaring: “To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.
“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America,” he added, “the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
The Andrew Brunson story is far from over, and we will watch closely to see how it unfolds in future negotiations.
Brunson has not been exonerated. He has not been pardoned. He has been placed under house arrest and wears an ankle bracelet to prevent any attempt at flight. He cannot leave Turkey.
But today he is at home with his wife, and his health issues will be addressed.
Today, for the first time in two years, there is genuine hope for his complete and absolute freedom from all the false charges against him.
And today it feels like a miracle.
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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