A Turkish court ordered the continued detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson on Monday, deeming him a flight risk and placing him in what advocates call an “extremely grim” prison on charges of having used his Christian sermons to promote Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Brunson, who addressed the court in Turkish on Monday, explained that, as a Christian man, it made no sense to aid the Islamic movement, Hizmet, which Ankara refers to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), and that he also never used his position as a clergyman to advocate for Kurdish independence, as prosecutors allege.
Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison for his alleged crimes. He was arrested in late 2016, shortly following the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the Turkish government has blamed on Gulen. Gulen has denied any involvement. Advocates for Brunson’s freedom allege he is being persecuted for his Christian faith, which Erdogan’s government has increasingly vocally opposed.
Erdogan has made explicit reference to the use of Brunson as a hostage to trade to Washington for Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
“I want the whole truth to be revealed. I reject all the accusations in the indictment. I haven’t been involved in any illegal activity,” Brunson said on Monday, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “I haven’t done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
Brunson called the possibility of his supporting Gulen “an insult to [his] religion.”
“I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement,” Brunson explained. He added a denial of the other charge against him – that he used Christianity to convert Turkish Kurds by advocating for an independent Kurdistan and supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Brunson has run a Protestant church in Izmir for decades, having moved to the country to serve the Christian minority there in 1993. He was arrested in October 2016.
The Turkish court decreed that Brunson will remain in prison at least until May 7, when the next hearing on his case is scheduled to occur, because he is a “flight risk,” according to Hurriyet.
Accompanying Brunson in court were several members of the U.S. government, including Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and U.S. religious freedom envoy Sam Brownback.
The U.S. Department of State condemned the decision to keep him behind bars. “The entire U.S. government is following Mr. Brunson’s case closely. We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent,” a State Department spokeswoman said in a statement Monday. “We believe that Turkey is a state bound by the rule of law, and we have faith in the Turkish people’s commitment to justice.”
On Tuesday, the American Center for Law and Justice, which has taken on Brunson’s case, denounced the court’s decision to keep him imprisoned. Jay Sekulow, the group’s chief counsel, told reporters the court also ordered Brunson back to an “overcrowded and extremely grim prison,” where he was kept before he was transferred to a more humane prison after suffering health setbacks behind bars. The return to that prison, the group protested, was “an escalation” of the situation against a U.S. citizen.
Local media in Montreat, North Carolina, where the Brunson family is originally from, report that the regional Christ Community Church has “prayed regularly for Brunson and compiled a seven-day prayer guide calling for individual and group prayer on his behalf leading up to the trail” [sic]. The Asheville Citizen-Times notes that Brunson has lost 50 pounds in prison and has developed several health problems, which top the list of prayers for Brunson in his hometown.
Brunson, 50, lives in Turkey with his wife and children. His daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told the U.N. Human Rights Council last month, where she appeared to advocate for her father’s release, “Having grown up in Turkey, it has been hard for me to understand the situation. My family loves and respects the Turkish people, and my father has been dedicated to serving them for over two decades.”
President Erdogan suggested in remarks last September that he would only release Brunson in exchange for Gulen.
“We have given you all the documents necessary [for the extradition of Gülen]. But they say, ‘give us the pastor,’” he said. “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.”
International observers have noted that Erdogan has exhibited animosity towards Christians, a small minority in Muslim-majority Turkey.
“There has been hate speech and defamation against religious minorities from the ruling party. When they want to attack their enemies, they openly associate them with religious minorities,” Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, told Breitbart News last month. “Erdogan, for instance, attacks his enemies by referring to them as the pawn of Israel or the pawn of the Jews or the pawn of the Catholics.”