A US pastor accused of spying in Turkey has been released from prison and placed under house arrest following international pressure.
Christians around the world are delighted that Pastor Andrew Brunson has at last been released from prison. He has been let out ostensibly because of health concerns and is now under house arrest. Andrew is not free to leave the house or the country and is being made to wear an ankle bracelet as a tracking device.
The pastor, who is aged 50, from North Carolina and has a wife and three children, was arrested in October 2016. His next court hearing is due on October 12.
It is believed to be intervention by President Trump and the threat of US sanctions that has persuaded Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to release the pastor from jail.
Pastor Brunson has lived in Turkey for 23 years and leads the small Protestant Izmir Resurrection Church. His wife, Norine, was originally arrested with him, but later released.
Brunson has been charged in effect with being an American spy, and taking part in the failed coup attempt in 2016. The prosecution claims he is a supporter of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen who has been blamed for the coup. Brunson was rounded up along with some 50,000 others, including soldiers, teachers and journalists. All were said to have been connected in some way to the imam who is living in Pennsylvania.
President Erdoğan has attempted to bargain for Andrew Brunson’s release in exchange for the cleric. In September 2017, he said ‘You have a pastor to give to us… Give us that one and we will work with our judiciary and give back yours.’ This prompted President Trump to denounce that as hostage bargaining. There is not enough evidence to link Fethullah Gülen with the coup to trigger extradition proceedings from the US.
Turkey also accuses Andrew Brunson with being linked with the Kurdish PKK, which has been outlawed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey.
If Pastor Brunson is found guilty on spying charges in October he will face 35 years in prison. He is being charged on a basis of secret evidence which has never been tested in court. All of the witnesses in his defence were dismissed by the judge without even hearing them.
Pastor Brunson has completely denied the spying charges and describes them as ‘shameful and disgusting’.
He told the Reuters news agency there was no concrete evidence against him and that he was in jail as an innocent man. As one of Christ’s disciples he was there to suffer in Jesus’ name. He said, ‘My faith teaches me to forgive, so I forgive those who testified against me.’
A US pastor who attended one of the hearings, Bill Campbell, described Brunson’s testimony as ‘absolutely powerful’. He said he presented the gospel with confidence and defended himself with boldness.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has described his case as a miscarriage ‘dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but without any real evidence to speak of. Upon this rests a man’s life.’
The stakes have been high. Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO, along with the US, but has come into contention with the US in Syria. America is supporting Kurds from the PKK against the Assad regime, while Turkey has been taking military action against the same Kurdish group.
The US has threatened financial sanctions and refused to supply Turkey with fighter jets. This has been linked partly with the Brunson case and partly with Turkey’s decision to buy arms from Russia. In recent years, it is said Turkey has begun to realign itself towards Russia.
Pastor Brunson has had a lot of high-level support in the US, particularly from President Trump, who is said to have played a critical role in securing his release from jail. Presidents Trump and Erdoğan met recently at a NATO summit and have spoken over the phone, during which Andrew Brunson’s case was raised.
President Trump has tweeted that the pastor was being persecuted for no reason. And earlier this month, he said he had been held hostage far too long and described him as ‘a wonderful Christian husband and father who had done nothing wrong’.
That threat of sanctions, which could have been key to Brunson’s release from jail, led to a plunge in value in the Turkish currency. When Brunson was allowed to return home, that gave an immediate boost to the Turkish lira.
What happened to Andrew Brunson has to be set against the wider issue of persecution of Christians in Turkey.
There are fewer than 200,000 Turkish Christians in this nationalistic country, whose identity is closely interwoven with Sunni Islam. To convert to Christianity is considered a betrayal of that Turkish identity. Converts can come under severe pressure from their families and society. Some lead double lives.
Perhaps the most notorious case in recent years was the murder in Malatya, in 2007. Three Christian employees of a publishing house were attacked, tortured, and their throats cut by five Muslims. Two of the victims were Turkish converts from Islam. The third had played Christ in a theatre production.
One of those arrested was carrying a note, which said: ‘We did it for our country. They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away.’ There were suggestions of a wider conspiracy behind the attack, and it took 11 years for the five main perpetrators to be sentenced to life.
It is this hostility towards Christians within Sunni Islam Turkey which may have made Andrew Brunson an easy target, particularly given Turkey’s pressure to get the opposition cleric Fethullah Gülen back from Pennsylvania.
Right now, Andrew Brunson is out of jail but house arrest is not the end of the matter. We hope and pray that Turkey will demonstrate justice by dismissing the unfounded charges against him, for which no evidence whatsoever has been brought.