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Turkish court refuses to release Christian pastor despite Trump pressure

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KIRIKLAR, Turkey, August 1, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — An American Protestant pastor who has spent 21 months imprisoned in Turkey will not be allowed to return home yet, despite encouraging signs last week and public demands by President Donald Trump.

Andrew Brunson was first 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 “(t)ens of thousands of teachers, politicians, police officers, journalists, and others were arrested or fired from their jobs in retaliation,” according to the LA Times. Brunson had worked in Turkey for 20 years beforehand.

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.

“Let it be clear, I am in prison, not for anything that I have done wrong, but because of who I am – a Christian pastor,” Brunson has said. “I desperately miss my wife and children. Yet I believe this to be true – it is an honor to suffer for Jesus Christ as many have before me. My deepest thanks to all those around the world who are standing with me and praying for me.”

President Trump declared July 18 that Brunson’s imprisonment was a “total disgrace,” and called on Erdogan to “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father.” Vice President Mike Pence vowed last Thursday that the U.S. will “impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free” if he is not fully released.

Many hoped last week that Turkey was beginning to relent, as it released Brunson to house arrest instead of prison. American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) chief counsel Jay Sekulow, who has been working on Brunson’s case, revealed Trump was involved in “bilateral negotiations at the highest levels” to free Brunson, and credited his leadership with making this “critical first step” happen.

On Tuesday, however, a Turkish court denied Brunson’s appeal to have both the house arrest and travel ban lifted, the LA Times reported. Sekulow said the decision was not a surprise, but stressed that high-level negotiations remain ongoing.

The Turkish government remains intent on prosecuting Brunson, who would spend 35 years in prison if convicted. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States has seen “no credible evidence” to support the charges.

The U.S. government has begun to make good on its sanctions threat, Haaretz reported, starting with Turkey's Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. Members of Congress have also proposed legislation that would make Turkish loans from international financial institutions contingent on stopping the "arbitrary arrest and detention" of American citizens and consular staff.

The Turkish government is publicly expressing defiance over America’s sanction threats, meanwhile, with Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin declaring that the country will not “bow down” to the United States and claiming that Brunson’s case is just a “pretext.”

Brunson’s next scheduled hearing will be October 12, and his attorney intends to keep pushing to free him in the meantime.

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