Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly said this week that a Turkish court, not politicians, would decide whether to release U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, held since 2016 on charges of terrorism through “Christianization.”
Brunson’s detention has significantly strained relations between NATO allies the United States and Turkey.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters late on Tuesday while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Erdogan said, “This is a judiciary matter. Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges … On Oct. 12 there will be another hearing and we don’t know what the court will decide, and politicians will have no say on the verdict.”
Brunson, who denies the charges of terrorism and espionage in connection to the failed coup attempt in 2016, is facing up to 35 years behind bars.
In July, Turkish authorities placed the pastor on house arrest after serving nearly two years in jail.
“As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan declared.
Turkey scheduled Brunson’s next court hearing for October 12.
Erdogan’s remarks to Reuters came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was hopeful the Erdogan administration would Brunson this month.
“Yes, he could be released this month. He should have been released last month – and he should be released today, in fact,” the secretary told reporters on Monday in New York where he is participating in the U.N. General Assembly, according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) agency.
“Pastor Brunson and the other U.S. persons that are being held by Turkey all need to be released by Turkey, and that needs to be done immediately,” Pompeo proclaimed.
He reiterated the Trump administration’s position that Turkey is “wrongly” holding Brunson.
Last Friday, the top U.S. diplomat told the 2018 Values Voter Summit, “We are sparing no effort to return Pastor Brunson to the United States … he has been wrongly held, and his proper place is to be able to return here to once again practice his faith in our great nation. Know this, President Trump will never forget about our own.”
During the summit, Jacqueline Furnari, the pastor’s daughter, said Turkey’s indictment against her father explicitly deems “Christianization” as his terror-linked crime.
Citing the 62-page indictment, Furnari noted, “My father’s crime is named as ‘Christianization,’ essentially equating it to terrorism and espionage and it is, for the most part, based on secret witnesses’ testimony.”