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Harsh Turkish Ruling Extends US Pastor's Imprisonment

Lela Gilbert

A Turkish court ruled on Monday that imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson will remain in jail at least until his new trial date in July.

The presiding judge reportedly dismissed all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense team without hearing any of their testimony. One high-ranking U.S. official called the judge’s action “simply unconscionable.”

The latest development in the case comes despite a personal plea by President Trump for Brunson’s release.

A Presbyterian clergyman from Black Mountain, North Carolina, Brunson faces up to 35 years in a Turkish prison if convicted on charges of espionage and “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member.” Brunson — already incarcerated for over 18 months — has steadfastly denied the charges.

“I haven’t done anything against Turkey,” Brunson declared during Monday’s 11-hour hearing. “On the contrary I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years,“ he told the judge.

Pastor Brunson, 50, is a Presbyterian clergyman. Until his arrest in October of 2016, he pastored Resurrection Church, a small congregation in Izmir on Turkey’s western Aegean coast. He was taken into custody, swept up along with thousands of others, in the crackdown that followed an attempted coup in Turkey.

Brunson was initially accused of being affiliated with the outlawed Gulen Movement, the alleged terrorist group responsible for the coup according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Later on, spying and “seeking to overthrow the Turkish government” were added to his list of charges.

Most observers beyond Turkey’s borders are appalled at what appears to be a trumped up case against the clergyman.

A bipartisan group of 66 U.S. senators stated their views in an open latter to President Erdogan in April, declaring that the indictment “is an absurd collection of anonymous accusations, flights of fantasy, and random character assassination.”

Indeed, the charges against Pastor Brunson — which he adamantly denies — are based on the words of anonymous “witnesses,” and are widely disputed. Most U.S. observers believe that the pastor is being held hostage by the Turkish government.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Erdogan is upset by the lack of U.S. action on his repeated demands to deport a Turkish cleric he accuses of fomenting a failed military coup in Turkey in the summer of 2016. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, denies the accusation.”

Erdogan has, in fact, indicated that Brunson could be released to the US if Gulen were extradited to Turkey.

In a September 2017 speech, Erdogan made his case for a trade-off, “‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gulen] to us. Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you.

“The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”

Pastor Brunson’s case has highlighted Erdogan’s intensifying authoritarianism and his mounting abuses against perceived enemies.

In a statement from his prison cell, Andrew Brunson clearly stated his case.

“Will the Turkish government face no consequence for stubbornly continuing to hold an American citizen as a political prisoner? Even though I have a long public track record as a church pastor, they falsely accuse me of being a member of an Islamist terrorist group.

“I have been imprisoned since Oct. 7, 2016. During this time, the Turkish government has produced no proof and has rebuffed numerous attempts by the American government to secure my return to the United States.

“In fact they are treating the U.S. government with contempt and paying no price for it. I plead with my government — with the Trump administration — to fight for me.”

The Brunson case has, in fact, seriously strained U.S. relations with Turkey.

The U.S. chargé d’affaires in Turkey, Philip Kosnett, was among those present at Brunson’s May 7 hearing. So was Sandra Jolley, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

In a statement posted on USCIRF.gov, vice chair Jolley wrote, “We leave the courthouse with serious concerns. Today’s 11 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,” Jolley continued, “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.”

As for President Trump, he recently tweeted his support for the beleaguered American.

“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”

The unjust outcome of Pastor Andrew Brunson’s hearing was a great disappointment to his wife Nadine and their three children, to the Christian community, and to millions of intercessors worldwide.

The countless prayers for Pastor Brunson’s release, so far unanswered, simply must continue. May this innocent man be strengthened, body and soul. May he be encouraged as he continues his lonely vigil. And may the day of his deliverance come quickly.

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