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Religious Freedom Commission Urges Trump to Sanction Turkey Over U.S. Pastor Jailed for 'Terrorism'

On Tuesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on President Donald Trump to press for the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in Turkey and charged with joining a terrorist organization. If Turkey does not relent, USCIRF urged Congress and Trump to sanction the state.

"USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the administration to redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson's release," USCIRF Vice Chairs Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga said in a statement. "No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American."

"We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice," Jolley and Arriaga concluded.

Turkish prosecutors issued a new indictment against Pastor Brunson, charging him with "leadership in a terrorist organization" and seeking a possible life sentence. Brunson is an American citizen and the leader of a small Protestant Christian church in the city of Izmir, Turkey, where he has served for more than 22 years. Turkish officials arrested him on October 7, 2016, charging him with membership in an armed terrorist organization.

On March 9, Pastor Brunson's daughter, Jacqueline, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. She called the allegations against her father "absurd," and noted that her family "has suffered greatly during the past year and a half."

Various high level U.S. officials, including President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence,  have called for Brunson's release.

On October 5, 2017, USCIRF Vice Chairs Jolley and Arriaga visited Pastor Brunson in Kiriklar Prison in Izmir. They recounted the visit in an article for Religion News Service.

... We heard the loud, metallic, heavy clang of a gate that opened and closed. The door to the visiting room flung open and in walked a pale, slender version of the Andrew Brunson we had only seen in photos. Since his imprisonment he has lost over 50 pounds.

What happened then was an almost surreal hour of discussion with a man still in shock at what had happened to him. How could a NATO ally do this to an American citizen? How could this happen in a country where he had spent more than two decades of his life helping people? What were the charges against him? When might he get a trial? If convicted, will he be in jail for the rest of his life?

Brunson asked us these questions because the only thing certain about his life is the four walls that surround him and define the limits of his world. He eats, sleeps and lives in that cell, and is allowed only to leave it once a week for a scheduled visit with his wife or a consular officer. Most of these visits are conducted in a room divided by a Plexiglas wall.

Jolley and Arriaga reported that Brunson "has had no due process," and that the Turkish government "has given him no information about the charges against him and no court date."

"The case against him seems to be based on secret evidence and a secret witness that allege his involvement in trying to overthrow the Turkish government — a charge he flatly denies," the two wrote at the time.

Responding to the new indictment, the vice chairs wrote, "USCIRF is appalled that Turkish officials are seeking a possible life sentence for Pastor Brunson and are accusing him of leadership in a terrorist organization. The government of Turkey has detained Pastor Brunson largely based on a purported ‘secret witness’ and secret evidence which they refuse to make public."

"The Turkish government should reverse course immediately and we urge the international community to condemn this indictment," they concluded.

Last year, USCIRF placed Turkey on its Tier 2 for violations of religious freedom and began advocating for Pastor Brunson as part of its Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.

The Christian nonprofit Open Doors USA ranked Turkey the 31st worst country for Christian persecution across the world. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has worked to transform Turkey from a secular state into a Sunni Muslim one. Christians are barred from state jobs, and experience discrimination in private employment as well, especially where employers have ties to the government.