June 21, 2018

White House Rally Spotlights Turkey’s Disregard for Religious Freedom

On Wednesday, June 20, the Save the Persecuted Christians (STPC) coalition cosponsored a rally in front of the White House with Coptic Solidarity to show support for Pastor Andrew Brunson who has been imprisoned in Turkey since October, 2016. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s International Religious Liberty Director, Faith J.H. McDonnell, has written about Pastor Brunson’s situation before and condemned Turkey’s politically-motivated actions. At the rally supporting Pastor Brunson, the protesters chanted messages directed at President Trump and Ambassador Sam Brownback as crowds of tourists and schoolchildren looked on.

Dede Laugesen, a spokesman for the event was encouraged by the spectators and stated, “This is our opportunity to engage the general public.” The protesters carried signs saying “Free Andrew Brunson” and used a bullhorn to proclaim “Mr. Trump, we support you, bring Pastor Andrew home!”

The STPC represents over 215 million Christians worldwide who are being persecuted for their beliefs. As Laugesen pointed out, Turkey has been excluding Christians from civil life in recent years, particularly since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power after a failed 2016 coup. Erdogan blamed the uprising on the West and the United States and called on America to extradite the dissident, Fethullah Gülen, who now resides in Pennsylvania. When America balked at Erdogan’s demands, Turkey arrested Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has spent decades ministering in the Izmir region of Turkey. The Turkish government subsequently demanded an exchange of Brunson for Gülen, which President Trump rejected.

Magdi Khalil organized the protest on behalf of Coptic Solidarity citing the need to support a pastor who has done excellent work in Turkey for more than 20 years. Khalil criticized Erdogan’s blatant political motivations behind imprisoning Pastor Brunson. “This is blackmail, it is a political issue and Brunson is a hostage who didn’t make any mistakes” Khalil said. According to the American Center for Law and Justice, Brunson has lost over 50 lbs. in jail and has been denied rights to an attorney. He was held without charges until March, 2018, and once the indictment was revealed, it became apparent that there was no legal basis for Brunson’s imprisonment.

The 62-page document had many outrageous claims including “An allegation that all churches in the United States are connected to an organization called CAMA — it isn’t stated what the initials supposedly stand for” as well as an assertion “that Mormons make up nearly 40 percent of members of the United States’ armed forces serving overseas.” There is also an absurd accusation that connects Brunson to terrorist organizations because Brunson’s daughter sent him a recipe for maklube, a Middle Eastern dish supposedly popular with terrorists.

Khalil pointed out that Brunson is another casualty of Erdogan’s ambition. He said “Erdogan controls everything in Turkey: the army, the judiciary, the media. Now we see his real face.” According to Khalil, in a recent meeting with Islamic Sheikhs, Erdogan confirmed his desire to be the head of Islamic Europe. Khalil accused Erdogan of being a cover for the Muslim Brotherhood and cited his own nation’s history with Islamic regimes. “The worst condition for Christians is under Islamic rule. We’ve faced this issue throughout history in Egypt.” Khalil went on to call Erdogan an “Islamic Nazi.”

The goal of the protest was to bring attention to Turkey’s disregard for religious freedom. Khalil called on Trump to force Pastor Brunson’s release into the ongoing conversations with Turkey about Syria and the Kurds. He lauded a bill championed by Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) that passed the Senate earlier this week that would halt the sale of one hundred F-35 jets to Turkey as punishment for Erdogan holding Brunson hostage. Trump himself tweeted his support for Brunson back in April. Laugesen was optimistic that the president would be able to put pressure on Turkey saying “We support anything and everything he can do. We know he’ll do okay.”

Pastor Brunson’s next trial is set for July 18. The judicial charade could stretch on for years and Erdogan seems content to use Pastor Brunson’s life as a bargaining chip, unless President Trump can pressure him to release the innocent pastor.


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