Pastor Andrew Brunson “became a magnet for prayer” to a country increasingly hostile to Jesus, bringing purpose to the over two years he spent in prison in Turkey for the crime of “Christianization,” he told Breitbart News.
Brunson, now the author of a memoir detailing the harrowing ordeal he endured in a nation where he preached for over two decades, has not abandoned hope that Christianity will bring light to a state under increasingly authoritarian Islamist rule. He also hopes his story, God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance, will pave the way to erasing the image of Christianity as a threat increasingly present in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The pastor and his wife, Norine, were initially arrested in 2016 and brought to immigration authorities in the aftermath of the failed coup against Erdogan that year. Brunson was soon after accused of a host of crimes that 66 senators referred to in a letter to Erdogan as “random character assassination”: military espionage, a plot to overthrow the government, support for terrorist organizations, and, perhaps most indicative of Erdogan’s true objection to Brunson’s presence in his country, “Christianization.”
Hysterical pro-Erdogan Turkish media referred to Brunson as the “Rambo Priest.” He stood accused of leading the Jehovah’s Witnesses and membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, though he is a pastor and teaching elder at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Prosecutors claimed he was a devotee of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Erdogan accused of staging the coup against him (the elderly Gülen denies involvement). Brunson was also allegedly helping the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization – by “running boatloads of cash to Israel to then transfer to the PKK,” he told Breitbart News in a phone conversation.
Prosecutors never clarified how Brunson could be an agent for multiple Christian denominations, a Muslim service movement, and a presumably atheist Marxist group at the same time. The charges were so convoluted, prone to erratic changes, and poorly presented that Brunson, at one point in God’s Hostage, asks, “How can I defend myself when I don’t even know what the charges are against me?”
“It doesn’t make sense, but it didn’t have to make any sense,” Brunson told Breitbart News. “They accused me of different things at different times. They were trying to find something that would fit, so they would change their minds a lot and then they would drop the previous accusations.”
In September 2017, Erdogan openly haggled for Gülen’s extradition, using Brunson as a bargaining chip.
“We have given you all the documents necessary [for the extradition of Gülen]. But they say, ‘give us the pastor.’ You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one,” Erdoğan said at the time. U.S. authorities insist that, contra Erdogan’s claims, Turkish officials have provided no legitimate evidence to extradite Gülen.
Turkish prosecutors are seeking 3,600 life sentences for Gülen, who is 78 years old.
While Erdogan attempted to use him to acquire Gülen, Brunson believes that the biggest threat he presented to Erdogan was simply existing as a Christian in a country ruled by Islamists.
“They threw other things in that kind of betrayed what they were really after, which was ‘Christianization,'” he explained. “This is obviously not illegal to tell people about Jesus, but it was presented as some nefarious plot to Christianize the Kurds and, in that way, cause the division of Turkey.”
The territory historically covering Kurdistan contains regions of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Southern Turkey is largely Kurdish and home to a PKK uprising. Cities like Diyarbakir and Mardin have experienced years of military raids, government curfews, and infringements on their rights meant, Ankara insists, to eradicate the PKK threat. The PKK has fought for decades to split southern Turkey for the creation of a sovereign Kurdistan.
Brunson never discussed politics in his sermons, he said, nor did prosecutors ever present real evidence that he had ties to Kurdish separatists.
“The idea of Christianization – much of the evidence they presented to support these arguments was our actual work … [we said] this is just evidence that we are what we say we are, which is that we work in a church and tell people about Jesus,” he noted.
Brunson insists that the fear of Christianity Erdogan’s government has promoted is misplaced, first and foremost because being Christian is an individual choice.
“First of all, we can’t Christianize anything,” he told Breitbart News. “People may think that, some have said, ‘Why are you in Turkey shoving Christianity down the throats of Muslims? That is not at all what we do.”
“We go over and we don’t talk about Muhammed, we don’t talk about the Quran, we don’t talk about Islam. We don’t attack them at all. What we do is present Christianity positively, which is to say, what the Bible teaches and who Jesus is, and we do this with people who are interested, people who come to us and ask questions,” he continued. “We teach them to pay their taxes, to submit to their government, to pray for their political leaders, and we did that regularly in our church, so there is no reason for the Turkish government to be afraid of Christianization.”
He added that Christians have no track record in the modern world of destabilizing Muslim countries.
“Where has that happened that Christians are tearing a state apart? That’s just not happening,” Brunson said. “Where in the Muslim world are there a bunch of Christians leading an uprising against a Muslim government?”
Brunson credits God with using the “evil” done to him to do “something very powerful, raising millions of people around the world to pray for Turkey.” He remains grateful and committed to spreading God’s message. Yet his memoir differs significantly from many similar narratives of persecuted Christians in that Brunson speaks candidly about his suffering in prison and how it led him to question his faith – and come out even more devout.
“God picked the wrong man,” he lamented to wife Norine on one occasion recounted in the book. He openly admits, “I felt abandoned by God.” He told Breitbart News that what he experienced was the “silence” of God and that it made his faith grow.
“It wasn’t an intentional decision to go in that direction, it’s that we wanted to be very accurate … the book is not comprehensive, but it is accurate and it describes the struggle that I had,” Brunson told Breitbart News. Asking others who knew persecuted Christians, he said he found that “many people who have been in prison have the same struggle where there are rays of light, you could say, occasionally, but where they often experience the silence of God.”
Ultimately, Brunson writes, he experiences a moment in which, in complete spiritual surrender, he feels his heart reaching out to Jesus, breaking through the strengthening doubt. He described that moment to Breitbart News as “God giving me a gift, which was showing me my heart. Usually, when we talk about God revealing our heart to us, it’s a scary thing – like, ‘Oh no, He’s going to reveal all the things that are wrong with me.’ Actually, what He showed me was that I had a sincere love, but this had now been tested. Our love can be completely sincere and true, but [when] it has been tested … and you come out it, it’s a proven love, and that’s a bit different.”
Brunson writes that he had never knowingly met a following of Gülen’s Islamic movement – called Hizmet but referred to by Erdogan’s government as the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO)” – but, despite “Christianization” being among his crimes, he was classified as a Gulenist in prison and kept in a cell with others accused of the same. As such, he is one of the few alleged “Gulenists” caught in the post-coup Erdogan purge to have escaped, and his the only English-language narrative of how Turkey has treated its imprisoned “Gulenists.”
Of those Brunson met – he shared a cell with an estimated 30 people in his over two years detained – “not a single one of them was involved with anything to do with the coup,” he told Breitbart News.
“There are no doubt some Gulenists who were involved with the coup, there are a lot of questions about that … but the people I was in prison with … most of them were fathers whose children are growing up without having their father at home, and that’s just a terrible injustice,” he said. “As far as I can tell these were innocent people. Some of them were related to the movement, but they were not involved in any violence or subverting the state.”
Erdogan insisted throughout the process that he had no control over it, as he is president and has no power over the judicial branch. The Turkish judiciary finally freed Pastor Brunson in October 2018, a year ago. The trigger: crippling U.S. sanctions ordered by President Donald Trump as retribution for violating Brunson’s human rights.
Now home, Brunson describes his ordeal as an “attack” on his person, but one that allowed God to manifest and shed light on a population long starved of the power of Christian prayer.
“I think that there was an attack on me and, obviously, there are spiritual forces involved in that. And the Turkish government is the one that arrested me and then unjustly held me. And especially the Turkish leaders did that. So they get the credit for what they did, they held me unjustly,” Brunson said. “But I also say that there’s another side to the story, the God story, which is that God – behind all of the political intrigue that was going on and the injustice – God was also involved. And I say the Turkish govt stole two years of my life, but God redeemed it.”
“They intended to cause me harm, they did harm me, but God also turned it around to bring a lot of good. And that good specifically I can see, one major thing, is that I became a magnet for prayer, and millions of people around the world were praying for me.”