By Bob Smietana
An imprisoned American pastor and missionary denied he had any involvement with terrorists at a hearing in Turkey earlier today.
Andrew Brunson was arrested in 2016 after a failed coup against the Turkish government. The pastor has been accused of collaborating with a terrorist group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“I reject all the allegations about the PKK terror organization,” he told the court today (May 7), according to Agence-France Presse. “I have never supported them.”
The government’s case relies on secret witnesses, who testified by video in the trial, according to Bloomberg News. Those witnesses say the pastor cooperated with terrorists and had ties with the movement the Turkish government blames for backing the coup attempt.
Brunson has been caught up in a diplomatic feud. Turkey wants the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and allegedly played a role in the attempted coup. So far, the U.S. has refused.
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has tied the fate of Brunson to Gulen’s extradition.
“Give a pastor, take a pastor,” Erdogan said last fall, according to Bloomberg.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says Brunson’s arrest and trial have had “a chilling effect on Christians living in the country.”
Sandra Jolley, USCIRF vice chair, attended today’s hearing.
“The American public and Congress have been very patient,” she told Bloomberg. “Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here imprisoned is a day when the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world.”
Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
Earlier this year, NASA scientist Serkan Golge was sentenced to more than seven years in jail for alleged ties to Gulen. Golge had been visiting family in Turkey during a government crackdown after the coup, according to Science magazine.
Brunson has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and started several small churches.
Recently, a reporter from The Atlantic magazine visited Resurrection Church, where Brunson often preached:
On a recent Sunday, the small building, big enough for no more than 50 to 60 people, was nearly packed. Roughly half were Turks and half foreigners, all of whom prayed for Brunson’s release. Umut Dogan, chair of the Resurrected Churches Association, converted to Christianity 12 years ago and now delivers the occasional sermon at the church. He said Brunson played an integral role in his understanding of the faith. “For me, it was a privilege to get to know him and develop a close relationship. He will always be in my life,” Dogan said, praising Trump for tweeting about Brunson. “We love [Brunson] and his family. Everyone knows that he made sacrifices to develop and improve the lives of people in his community.”
For his part, Brunson told a judge today that he never allowed politics in the church, according to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy group run by Turkish journalists in exile.
“I haven’t done anything against Turkey,” he said, according to the Stockholm Center. “On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
More than a half million people have signed a petition on Brunson’s behalf, sponsored by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the ACLJ, told supporters in an email today that a United Nations agency will look into Brunson’s case.
“[I]n a major development, upon our direct request, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention—the independent panel that investigates arbitrary arrests and detention—has agreed to take his case,” Sekulow wrote. “This is very big for Pastor Andrew, as they accept a limited number of cases—less than the Supreme Court.”
UPDATE: According to a news release from the USCIRF on Monday (May 7), Brunson’s hearing has been postponed to July 18 and he has been sent back to prison.
“We leave the courthouse with serious concerns,” said USCIRF vice chair Jolley. “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. 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.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.