48-year-old pastor Andrew Brunson of Black Mountain, North Carolina, was arrested in Turkey last October after performing missionary work in Turkey for 23 years.
He was not informed of the allegations against him until December when prosecutors revealed that a “secret informant” had alleged he was a member of an “armed terrorist organization.” His family says Turkey is persecuting Brunson for his religious beliefs and is appealing to Congress and the Trump administration for help.
Rev. Brunson and his wife Norine were longtime residents of the Turkish city of Izmir at the time of their arrest. They ran a small Protestant church, the Izmir Resurrection Church, which World Watch Monitor describes as having a congregation of 30 to 40 members. The Brunsons were awaiting renewal of their residence visa but were instead arrested and held incommunicado.
At first, they were told they would be deported within 15 days, due to activities that posed a “national security risk.” Mrs. Brunson was released after 13 days, but Andrew remains incarcerated.
In December, Rev. Brunson was told in court that a secret informant had accused him of membership in an armed terrorist organization, which the judge identified as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization — in other words, the followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in Pennsylvania for about as long as the Brunsons lived in Turkey. Gulen has been accused of masterminding the July coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and an effort to weed his accused followers out of Turkish institutions has been underway ever since. Thousands of accused Gulenists have been arrested or forced out of their jobs.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, told the Christian Post in December that Brunson is “facing grave danger in a Turkish prison where he is being held simply because of his Christian beliefs.”
“The government of Turkey, led by an Islamic party, has begun increased crackdowns on Christians, and pastor Andrew, if convicted, may face years in prison based on extremely serious and false charges. We are launching a global campaign to call attention to his plight demanding that Turkey, a NATO member, release pastor Andrew without delay,” Sekulow said. The ACLJ launched a petition demanding Brunson’s release. At the time of this writing, it had over 188,000 signatures.
“Honestly it’s been a nightmare that I did not think would still be going on,” Rev. Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline told WTVD News in North Carolina last week. “I mean he’s an American citizen. It’s kind of outrageous to think that this is happening to an American citizen.”
“Turkey’s been going through a lot of changes recently and Christians are not as welcomed,” she added. There have been many reports of Protestant expatriates finding themselves suddenly expelled from Turkey after the July coup.
WTVD reports that North Carolina’s senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, are both involved with the case. Senator Tillis’s office said it has been “in close contact with the State Department, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and members of Mr. Brunson’s family,” and that “diplomatic efforts” to secure the pastor’s freedom after four months of captivity are ongoing.
“We are hopeful that President Trump, if he has the chance to speak with President Erdogan, he’ll raise this issue with them,” said ACLJ executive counsel Cece Heil. Hurriyet Daily News reported on Sunday that a telephone conversation between Trump and Erdogan is supposed to take place “in the coming days.”
Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma wrote an op-ed published by Fox News in January about Rev. Brunson’s plight, in which he said he could not support increased trade with Turkey until it “illustrates its commitment again to basic religious freedom” by releasing Brunson and other prisoners.
“Turkey should consider carefully how it handles the case of Pastor Brunson,” Lankford cautioned. “America cares deeply about how our people are treated across the world, and we are watching closely. Aside from the personal struggle for Pastor Brunson and his family, America sees this as both a matter of religious freedom and safety for its citizens. If this is how Turkey treats an American like Andrew Brunson, other Americans will hesitate before taking their business to Turkey.”