How the fate of detained American pastor Andrew Brunson brought US-Turkey relations to the brink

Brunson, charged by Turkey with aiding dissidents, has lived in Turkey for more than two decades

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 10:15pm

His body hollowed out by more than a year behind bars, his memory and his eyesight faltering, the prisoner listened to two hours of testimony claiming he had tried to undermine the government of Turkey. And then, it was his turn to speak.

“My faith teaches me to forgive. I forgive all those who testified against me,” he said at a hearing in July. “I leave these people to God.”

The prisoner is American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who has become a flash point in the rapidly worsening relationship between the United States and Turkey.

Brunson was with charged abetting dissidents in 2016 and has recently been moved from prison to house arrest.

To hear Turkish officials describe him, Brunson, 50, is a dangerous dissident, an American who spent his time living in Turkey secretly aiding the state’s enemies, including those who orchestrated a failed coup against the Turkish government. To the American government and the evangelical community, Brunson is a man of God who was living quietly with his wife and children in Turkey for more than two decades as the pastor of a small local church with no political aspirations.

I call out to those in the United States. It is a shame. You are trading a strategic Nato ally for a priest
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

As Turkey’s feud with the United States has erupted into a trade war that has sent the Turkish lira tumbling, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seemed to bristle at the Trump administration’s effort to have Brunson released. “I call out to those in the United States. It is a shame,” Erdogan said during a speech on Saturday. “You are trading a strategic Nato ally for a priest.”

Brunson moved to Turkey in the early 1990s to fulfil a calling he seemed to have had his whole life. His parents were missionaries in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a small evangelical denomination.

He returned to the United Statesand met his wife, Norine. The young couple wanted a life like

the one Brunson had growing up, as missionaries in another country. They settled on Turkey.

“We even went to Turkish grade school because my parents wanted us to learn the language and feel comfortable in the culture. To me, it was home. My family, school and friends were in Turkey,” said the Brunsons’ daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, when she testified before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a US government agency. Furnari has spoken and written for months on her father’s behalf.

And then came October 2016, when Brunson and his wife received a summons to a police station. They went, fearing they might be deported. Instead, they were detained.

Norine Brunson was later released days later. Her husband was indicted on charges of “acting in a parallel and coordinated fashion” with Turkey’s two principal enemies: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and a network run by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric accused of fomenting a failed coup in 2016. The indictment also says Brunson aimed “to divide and separate” Turkey through the “Christianisation” of members of the Kurdish minority.

The pastor’s arrest coincided with a large-scale crackdown by Turkish authorities on the two groups and their members, people accused of being associated with the groups, anti-government dissidents, and, in some cases, people who had committed no crime at all, according to human rights groups.

The evidence against Brunson in the indictment includes phone messages, documents and statements by various witnesses, including witnesses referred to by code names such as “Fire” and “Meteor.”

“One scene I witnessed was 25 Turkish University students taking an oath by putting their right hands over their hearts, accompanied by the Star-Spangled Banner,” one witness is quoted as saying.

The main topic of Brunson’s last court hearing in July appeared to be his associations with Kurdish congregants and whether those contacts amounted to support for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States. State witnesses portrayed the church as a hive of PKK sympathy.

Other witnesses said they had never seen anything of the sort.

“He has no interest in Turkish politics,” said Umut Dogan, a leader in Brunson’s church who said he has known the pastor for 11 years. “He never gets involved with anything besides religion.”

At Brunson’s July hearing, he said to the judges that some of the witnesses harboured grudges against the church or were prejudiced against Kurds.

Charges of espionage were also false, he added. “I look at myself as a patriot for America but I didn’t come to represent Americans,” Brunson said. “I came as a representative of God.”