As the world watches, the United States and Turkey are engaged in a struggle over the fate of an American pastor. Brunson, 50, is just one of several other Americans and three Turkish nationals who work for the U.S. government that have been unjustly imprisoned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. is working for the release of all. But Brunson is in the spotlight because he is an evangelical Christian who is, in fact, being persecuted for his religious faith, in spite of the blatant deception surrounding his arrest and continued detainment.
Turkey’s actions towards Brunson have been deceitful since October 7, 2016. It was then that the pastor was taken into custody at the local police station in Izmir. He had lived there with his family for over 23 years, pastoring the Izmir Diriliş (Resurrection) Church.
Until the arrest, Brunson’s life had been peaceful, but life had not been safe for Christians in Turkey for some time. And Brunson is not the first foreigner to be targeted there. In 2007 in Malatya, Turkey, a German Christian missionary, along with two Turkish Christians, was horrifically tortured and slaughtered. The blood that had soaked the floor of their small Christian bookshop cried out for justice for almost a decade before some of the murderers were finally put in prison in 2016. Now an American is the victim of injustice that is officially sanctioned – in fact, perpetrated – by the Turkish government.
Brunson was charged with supporting the Gülen movement, blamed by the Turkish government for the July 2016 coup attempt. He was also charged with espionage. As journalist Caroline Glick wrote on August 20, “Brunson’s role as the pastor of a small Evangelical church with 25 regular worshippers in Izmir was ‘classified as aiding terror organizations.’” He faces a 35 year sentence if convicted of these absurd charges.
LIES, SHOW TRIALS, AND MORE LIES
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has provided a list of lies and legal violations in Pastor Brunson’s case. From the start, the Turkish government deceived Brunson. They used his routine visa renewal application appearance to take him into custody. He was also told that he would be deported within 15 days – a threat which at this point seems like it would have been quite a blessing, considering the alternative he has endured.
Human rights violations continued from the moment Brunson was detained. He was denied access to a lawyer. The lawyer was refused admittance, then told (falsely) that Brunson had signed a statement waiving counsel. Turkey also did not allow a U.S. consulate representative to visit Brunson, violating the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In addition, Brunson was denied comfort from members of his church. They attempted to visit, and provide food and water and change of clothing for the pastor but were denied access until October 13.
During this time Brunson was held in miserable and cramped prison cells. He endured both physically threatening and mentally/emotionally devastating conditions. And he lost precious years of time with his wife and children.
These conditions were finally alleviated by his recent move from prison to house arrest on July 25, 2018. The move came immediately following the testimony of Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Funari, at the State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (July 24-26). But the charges against him remain.
Brunson has had three hearings in 2018 and he awaits yet another hearing at which “witnesses” will again provide fabricated stories. In World Magazine, two Turkish human rights advocates at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu called the 62-page indictment against Brunson “a muddled collection of conspiracy theories spinning mundane details of the pastor’s life into terrorist acts.” They revealed that “the Turkish prosecutor relies on ludicrous accusations from three secret witnesses and a convicted murderer to allege that the pastor carried out felonies on behalf of two terrorist organizations as well as military espionage.”
The two scholars call this “the most absurd court case in the country’s history.”
U.S. GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Already Washington’s efforts on behalf of Brunson have been quite energetic. Congress has done its part. In June, the US Senate passed legislation that includes a provision removing Turkey from the F-35 program, largely because of Brunson’s detention.
In addition, the unprecedented State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July focused on victims of religious persecution. On the afternoon of July 24, as mentioned, Brunson’s daughter highlighted her father’s plight to NGOs and civil society representatives. U.S. government officials pledged further commitment to work for his freedom. The next morning, the second day of the Ministerial brought news of Brunson’s move from prison to house arrest.
On July 26, the third day of the Ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence addressed political leaders from around the world. Pence said that while the move to house arrest was a promising first step, it was not enough. He had spoken to Brunson and assured him that the entire Administration would keep working to secure his full release and get him back to the USA.
Not many days later President Trump applied some pressure on Turkey. He utilized the Global Magnitsky Act, the law passed by Congress enabling the President to sanction individual human rights abusers. Trump levied sanctions against Turkey’s Ministers of Justice and the Interior for their part in Brunson’s arrest and detainment. In addition to the sanctions on the officials, the U.S. doubled tariffs on imported aluminum and steel. Turkey’s lira plummeted.
President Erdogan retaliated with sanctions of his own. He also had a warning for Washington. “Those who think they can bring us to our knees with economic manipulation don’t know this nation,” he said on Friday, August 10.
FOREIGN POLICY AND TRUTH
In light of such a situation, how should the United States government respond as it continues to demand that Turkey release the wrongfully-held pastor?
Turkey has been refusing United States demands to release Andrew Brunson on the grounds that this is a criminal matter and, according to Erdogan, the United States is disrespecting Turkey’s sovereignty and safety. But then Turkey proposed a new deal: You drop the investigation into Turkish bank, Halkbank, (facing billions of dollars in fines for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions), and we’ll release your pastor. This demonstrates that Erdogan does not consider Pastor Andrew Brunson a threat. He considers Brunson a bargaining chip, or in the words of Mark Tooley in Providence journal, “Turkey’s hostage.”
The U.S. refused Turkey’s overture. Washington told Turkey that Brunson must be released before other issues are negotiated.
National Security Advisor John Bolton defended the U.S. refusal to tie Brunson’s release to anything else. He pointed out on August 23 “this crisis could be over instantly, if they did the right thing as a NATO ally, part of the West, and release Pastor Brunson without condition.” And Caroline Glick observes, “This is not the sort of behavior you would expect to see in a NATO member and long-term strategic ally.”
More deception? Is Turkey an ally?
No, says Caroline Glick. In her August 20 article, she demonstrates that Turkey has not been an ally for a long time. She lists Erdogan’s actions that have been hostile to the United States and to global security, including permitting Turkey to serve as the mobilization base for ISIS and openly calling for the restoration of the Ottoman Empire and the destruction of Israel.
The United States, along with the rest of NATO, has been in denial about Turkey’s true disposition until the persecution of Andrew Brunson. Glick concludes, “Pastor Brunson’s persecution is forcing Washington finally to face the truth about Turkey, and adapt its policies to align with that truth.”
In addition to adapting U.S. policies to the truth that the U.S.-Turkish alliance is a thing of the past, U.S. policies must be true to that for which America stands and has always stood. In the Wall Street Journal, writer/editor William McGurn observes, “Amid the give and take of foreign policy, the plight of a single American can seem small and secondary.” Although, he says, there are “legitimate reasons to work towards good relations with Turkey,” that effort cannot come by “abandoning a fellow American held overseas to the tender mercies of some thug government.”
McGurn also says that “insisting on consequences for anyone who harms an innocent American abroad isn’t an act of charity. It’s the foundation for a healthy U.S. foreign policy – and a much safer world.
The U.S. government’s struggle for an American Christian pastor’s freedom is worth the risk. Mark Tooley says, “America is America, and ignoring or minimizing the outrage of such hostage taking, whose Christian victim has already offered public forgiveness in court to his tormentors, contravenes our core national identity.”
Caroline Glick has said that it was in large part due to Turkey’s dealings with Andrew Brunson that the United States has no longer been able to deceive itself about Turkey’s intentions towards the world and towards America. It seems as if Andrew Brunson has also helped America remember the truths that have made us who we are.