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US Christian pastor freed from Turkey after Trump admin deal

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KIRIKLAR, Turkey, October 12, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The Turkish government released Friday an American Protestant pastor who spent 21 months in jail and two under house arrest, following persistent pressure from, and a secret deal with, the Trump administration.

Andrew Brunson, a pastor who had worked in Turkey for 20 years, was arrested in October 2016 as part of a crackdown against political opponents of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after a failed coup attempt. The arrests ensnared “tens of thousands of teachers, politicians, police officers, journalists, and others were arrested or fired from their jobs in retaliation,” according to the LA Times.

He was put on trial for the crime of “Christianization,” with a Turkish judge attempting to link the North Carolina pastor to a political movement launched by Muslim Muhammed Fethullah Gülen and accusing him of helping members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party escape the country. The Turkish government considers both to be terrorist groups. If convicted, Brunson would spend the next 35 years in a Turkish prison.

Brunson professed his innocence and argued he was being persecuted for his Christian faith, as did the United States government. President Trump denounced his imprisonment as a “total disgrace,” while Vice President Mike Pence threatened to “impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”

Turkey showed the first signs of relenting in July when it moved Brunson to house arrest instead of incarceration, but refused to fully release him, until today.

The judge at Brunson’s latest hearing sentenced him to time served and subsequently released him, Fox News reports. He was officially sentenced to three years and one month in prison, but was released because he had already served two years in detention.

“The court on Friday called two witnesses, following alleged tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at a previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups,” Fox News adds. “But the new witnesses didn't confirm Kalkan's story and another prosecution witness said she did not even know Brunson.”

The day before, NBC News quoted two senior Trump administration officials who predicted an imminent release for Brunson, thanks to a deal between the administration and the Turkish government. The deal’s specifics are unknown, but NBC’s sources claim it involves the United States promising to lighten economic pressure against Turkey.

The White House is not elaborating on any deal, but the president suggested Friday that U.S. efforts were ongoing and confirmed that Brunson will be coming home.

Brunson’s release "could reset Trump and Erdogan’s relationship," Soner Cagaptay of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said.

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