Relations with our NATO “ally” Turkey continue to cause headaches for Americans and U.S. interests abroad.
Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that he would be willing to free the pastor in exchange for Fethullah Gulen — an influential Turkish leader who is considered an enemy of the Turkish state and currently living in self-exile in Pennsylvania.
American Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church in western Turkey, has been held on questionable charges and imprisoned since October 2016. The Turkish government accuses him of being a member of the Gulen movement, an Islamic religious and cultural movement that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the Turkish regime.
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It’s an odd charge, given that a Christian pastor would likely not want much to do with an entirely Islamic theological movement. Recognizing this, the Turkish government amended the charges against Brunson in August to include espionage, membership in a terrorist organization (Gulen), and attempting to overthrow the government.
According to World Watch Monitor, which highlights the persecution of Christians worldwide, Brunson has been stuffed in a small cell with 17 Turkish prisoners, who are also alleged members of the Gulen movement.
At least 78 members of Congress are calling Erdogan’s bluff on Pastor Brunson. In a February 2017 letter to President Erdogan, they wrote that “there appears to be no evidence to substantiate the charges against him for membership in an armed terrorist organization.”
Brunson, who grew up in North Carolina, had been living peacefully in Turkey for the past 23 years, leading a life as the pastor of his 25-member church. Suddenly, he finds himself in the center of a diplomatic firestorm between the United States and an increasingly tyrannical nation that is using him as a bargaining chip.
Fethullah Gulen has been in the U.S. since 1999. Erdogan accuses him of being the mastermind of 2016’s alleged coup attempt in Turkey. There has been zero public evidence released by the government in Ankara to conclude that Gulen ordered the attempted overthrow of the country.
The alleged coup failed, and shortly thereafter, Erdogan leveraged the situation to jail thousands of Gulen’s followers, in addition to tens of thousands suspected of disloyalty. Countless academics, journalists, students, and others have been imprisoned over the past year, mostly on coup-related charges (without evidence).
Erdogan has requested that the U.S. forcibly extradite Gulen back to Turkey, but thus far, his demands have not been answered. Pastor Brunson is his new tactic.
“‘Give us the pastor back’, they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gulen) to us,” Erdogan said, according to Reuters. “Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you.”
“The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not – he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away,” the Turkish autocrat added.
President Trump has previously called on Erdogan — who he remains cordial with — to release the jailed pastor. It remains to be seen how the White House will respond to Turkey’s latest infringement upon the two countries’ alliance.