The government of Turkey has accused detained American pastor Andrew Brunson of delivering pro-Kurdish sermons, a treasonous accusation in the eyes of Ankara, after claiming the Christian leader was a follower of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.
This new claim followed multiple demands from President Donald Trump and his administration that Turkey free Brunson, against whom Washington argues there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
Brunson was arrested in December and accused of being a member of the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ),” a terrorist group the Turkish government claims Gulen runs from his home in Pennsylvania.
Gulen, who runs a network of charter schools and leads an Islamic movement he calls “Hizmet,” denies that he is a leader of any terrorist group or promotes violence. He has also denied repeated accusations by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he organized the failed coup against him in July 2016.
While the United States has repeatedly asserted that there is no evidence linking Gulen to the coup attempt, the FBI has raided Hizmet charter schools for information pertaining to accusations of misuse of taxpayer funding.
Turkish prosecutors are seeking over 3,600 life sentences against Gulen for his alleged role in the coup and his alleged infiltration of the Turkish police, army, and school system. Gulen denies the accusations and has denounced his former ally Erdogan as a dictator in the making, calling for action against him in a Washington Post opinion piece this week.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reports that Turkish prosecutors are accusing Brunson of “delivering sermons to the Kurds with ‘a special purpose,'” implying that he expressed support for Kurdish separatism or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group against which Turkey is currently waging a military campaign in the southeast of the country.
While Brunson admits to welcoming Kurds at his Christian house of worship, the İzmir Resurrection Church, and sharing the stage with them while leading services, he has denied enabling the spread of any anti-Turkish government messages and noted that, as he did not speak Kurdish himself, he could not know what anyone said in his church in Kurdish. His church also provided Christian services in Arabic, which Brunson does not speak.
Hurriyet notes that the Gulenist allegations are separate from the claim that Brunson supported any anti-government Kurdish speech. Following the calls from the White House for Brunson’s release, the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak published an article on their Turkish-language website condemning Brunson for supporting Gulen and calling him the “FETO Chaplain.”
“The fact that the U.S., which has not taken any steps forward on Gulen despite the insistent demands of Turkey, put Pastor Brunson on the agenda at high-level meetings begs the question: why is the priest important for the USA?” the newspaper asked, implying America was colluding to defend Gulenists. The article goes on to note that Brunson is facing charges of “being a member of an armed terrorist organization,” the FETO, but does not explain why a Protestant pastor would join an Islamic cleric.
During his joint press conference with President Trump on Tuesday, Erdogan demanded the United States hand over Gulen before reporters. “As I have previously done so, I have been frankly communicating our expectations with regard to the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, which we have notified our friends of their involvement in the failed coup of July the 15th in Turkey,” the White House translates Erdogan’s statement as reading.
The White House additionally noted that Trump “raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States.”
According to an “administration official” who spoke to CBN news, President Trump and other members of his administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, requested Brunson be released three times during his meeting with Erdogan. “They went to bat for the pastor,” CBN quotes the official as saying.
Human rights groups have applauded the Trump administration for raising the issue. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization that has been advocating for Brunson’s freedom and insists his arrest is related to his work spreading Christianity and not accusations of terrorism, issued a statement thanking Trump on its website: “This is exactly what we asked the President to do and is a major sign of significant progress toward bringing Pastor Andrew home.”