Turkey Will Keep U.S. Christian Pastor in Prison Until at Least July

Andrew Brunson

An American pastor facing 35 years in prison in Turkey for alleged ties to terrorist groups will not have a chance to leave prison until his next hearing on July 18, the court presiding over his case decided on Monday after dismissing all witnesses assembled to defend the pastor without listening to their testimony.

Pastor Andrew Brunson has preached in Izmir, Turkey, for two decades. Despite being a Christian, he faces charges of supporting Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) organization. Brunson denies the charges.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly stated he would trade Brunson for Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania – suggesting the Turkish government is holding Brunson hostage, not trying him fairly before a court of law. Erdogan blames Gulen for organizing a failed coup against him in 2016, a charge Gulen denies.

Brunson once again rejected all charges during his hearing Monday, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

“I do not accept the charges. I would like to say openly and clearly that the PKK is a terrorist organization … I do not support any Kurdish group that carries on terrorist activities against Turkey,” Brunson said. “If we were sympathizers of the PKK those Turks would not stay in our church.”

Brunson insisted that he “never permitted politics in church” while running the Resurrection Protestant Church. He added that he found the charges against him “shameful and disgusting.”

Other than Brunson’s defense of himself, the judge in the case did not allow an assortment of witnesses assembled on his behalf to testify. Instead, two “secret” witnesses testified against him.

“Today’s eleven hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life,” Sandra Jolley, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said in a statement. “Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”

In its 2018 global religious freedom report, the USCIRF called for Brunson’s relief and lamented that “the state of religious freedom in Turkey worsened” in the past year. In addition to the Brunson case, the agency cites “proposed changes in the educational curriculum, an increase in government funding solely for Sunni mosques, and a lack of movement with respect to legal status and registration for non-Muslim communities” as points of concern for religious freedom. The agency adds that the status of the Hagia Sophia – a Christian basilica converted into a mosque and, later, a museum following the Muslim conquest of Constantinople – is currently threatened by President Erdogan, who has permitted Islamic prayers with increasing frequency at the nominally secular site.

Brunson’s arrest, the USCIRF notes, has “had a chilling effect on Christians living in the country.”

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which advocates Brunson, joined the USCIRF in condemning the judge’s decision to remand the case for another hearing and keep Brunson behind bars.

“The United States has been very forceful in demanding his release, and now we literally have the world coming to our aid and demanding Pastor Brunson’s release as well,” ACLJ representative Cece Heil said this week, noting that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also expressed interest in the case.

Brunson was arrested in December 2016, but his case only began in mid-April of this year. The court presiding over the case has repeatedly denied him bail, labeling him a flight risk. At his first hearing in April, Brunson insisted that he loved Turkey and “have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.” The court paused trial proceedings until this week, when they listened to two prosecution witnesses and shut the case down for nearly two more months.

In September 2017, following months of attempting and failing to convince Washington to extradite Gulen, Erdogan floated the idea of keeping Brunson imprisoned until Gulen returned to Turkey, without remarking on whether Brunson was guilty of the crimes alleged.

“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,” Erdogan suggested. “The one that we have [in our hands] is being tried, the one you have [in your hands] is not being tried. It is easier for you to give.”

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