Sixty-six U.S. senators released a letter on April 20 calling on the Turkish government to release an American pastor on trial in Turkey over alleged links to the Gülen group, which is accused of masterminding a coup attempt in 2016.
Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor who has lived in Turkey for over 20 years, was indicted after the attempt on July 15, 2016. He faces up to 35 years in prison.
He is also accused of acquiring secret political and military information, attempting to destroy constitutional order and overthrow the Turkish Parliament.
Denying all accusations against him, Brunson said he is a person defending Jesus, trying to establish churches in Turkey in accordance wlth the law. “I am not a member of an Islamic movement. I have never seen any member of FETÖ (a term invented by the Turkish government to refer to the Gülen movement) in my life,” he said.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump also voiced his support for Brunson on Twitter. He tweeted: “They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is.”
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018
Then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month called for Brunson’s release during a visit to Turkey.
“We continue to have serious concerns … about cases against US citizens who have been arrested under the state of emergency,” Tillerson said, referring to the emergency rule that has been in place since July 2016.
“We call upon Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other US citizens who we believe are being unjustly detained.”
A North Carolina native, Brunson has been in custody since October 2016 after he and his wife were detained on immigration violation charges. At the time, the Brunsons were running a small Christian church in İzmir. They had lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Brunson’s wife, Norine, was soon released, but the cleric remained in custody and soon saw his charges upgraded to terrorism. Prosecutors have suggested in court hearings that Brunson is being held on suspicion of being a follower of Fethullah Gülen
During a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara in late September, Erdoğan had said: “They want a pastor [Andrew Brunson] from us, you have a pastor [Fethullah Gülen], too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him.”
In response to Erdoğan, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.”
“In terms of Fethullah Gülen, who is here in the United States, we have received several requests for his extradition from the Turkish government related to him,” Nauert said, adding: “We continue to evaluate it, take a look at the materials that the Turkish government has provided us. I don’t have anything new for you on the subject of that.”
The pro-government Yeni Asır daily claimed in October that it had acquired an audio recording in which Brunson speaks back in 2010 about a coup attempt that would take place in 2016.
The daily said Brunson, who is in pretrial detention in an İzmir prison, talks to a young adult six years ago and implies that there will be a coup in the summer of 2016. Brunson also gives him a survival kit for use during an emergency, including a water purifier, high-calorie pills to be used in the event of a lack of food and mufflers worn by US Special Forces.
According to the report, Brunson says: “There will be a huge earthquake [in Turkey] in the summer months of 2016. Hide those things [the survival kit] in a place you can reach [in difficult times]. And meet me at US Consulate General in İstanbul after that earthquake.”
The pro-Erdoğan Takvim daily on May 20 accused Brunson, whose release US President Donald Trump sought from Turkish President Erdoğan, of being behind a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, claiming that he would be the CIA chief if the coup attempt had been successful.
According to the top story on Takvim’s front page, Brunson is a “high-level CIA agent” and also a “high-level member of the Gülen group,” which Erdoğan has labeled as a terrorist organization and which he accuses of masterminding the failed coup attempt. The arrest of the pastor has paralyzed CIA operations in Turkey, according to the article, and the US has been exerting all means to save him.
Takvim’s editor-in-chief, Ergun Diler, who accompanied Erdoğan during his visit to Washington, D.C., in May, also published a column about Brunson with the title “Rambo Pastor,” claiming that the pastor foiled an assassination attempt in 2011 in İzmir due to his agent training.
“Brunson was a ‘deep’ name, and he was influential not only in Turkey but all over the region,” Diler wrote and claimed the CIA would kill him in prison if they believed that Turkey would not deport him to the US.