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American Pastor Held by Turkey Charged with Trying to Destroy Constitutional Order, Overthrow Parliament

Despite pleas from the U.S. government to free a North Carolina pastor who made Turkey his home for more than two decades, the Turkish government has charged Andrew Brunson with attempting to destroy the country's constitutional order and overthrow their parliament.

Brunson has been sitting behind bars since last year, swept up in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's engulfing purge of perceived enemies. Hurriyet reported that the new charges against Brunson came from a different court.

Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, reported that Brunson had been transferred to a maximum security facility and faces the possibility of four consecutive life sentences.

Since the failed July coup attempt, Erdoğan's Islamist government has detained 124,685 people, arrested 58,120, fired 145,711 people of varying professions via government decree, shut down 2,099 schools, fired 7,316 academics, dismissed 4,424 judges and prosecutors, closed 184 media outlets, and imprisoned 300 journalists.

Turkey is officially a secular republic, and about 150,000 Christians live in the country including Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Syriac Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, Maronites, Chaldeans and Roman Catholics.

For the past 23 years, Rev. Andrew Brunson and his wife Norine have made Turkey their home, raising a family and ministering through the Protestant Izmir Resurrection Church in the Aegean coast city. Last October, they found a note on their door telling them to report to the migration management office for what they thought would be a visit connected to their visa renewal. Instead, officials detained the couple.

Norine was eventually released and allowed to stay in the country. The pastor, though, was sent to jail in December on a hazy accusation of "membership in an armed terrorist organization."

The Turkish government refers to exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, as a terrorist and has, with often no evidence, linked perceived Erdoğan opponents arrested or fired since the coup attempt to Gülen's "terrorist" movement. Erdoğan has also demanded the extradition of his former ally Gülen. Brunson has denied any links to the movement.

After Erdoğan visited Washington in May, the White House said President Trump had "raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States."

In unveiling the State Department's religious freedom report this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States "continues to advocate" for the release of Brunson, "who has been wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey.”

Brunson is also charged with conducting political and military espionage, according to Hurriyet.

The American Center for Law & Justice has been representing Brunson. ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow is a member of Trump's legal team for the Russia investigation.

"Pastor Brunson has not been forgotten," State Department press secretary Heather Nauert told reporters today. "The safety and security of Americans is one of our top priorities here at the State Department." She said consular officers have visited him "regularly," but did not know when they last saw Brunson.

A dozen or more American citizens have reportedly been taken into custody in the course of Erdoğan's purge. "There have certainly been some instances of delays or denials of consular access to some of our U.S. citizens who are in Turkey, who have been detained or arrested by security forces. Some of them are also dual nationals who possess Turkish citizenship, and some of this all continues," Nauert said. "So - just want to remind folks that in accordance with the Geneva - excuse me, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the United States has a legal right to access our U.S. citizens who have been detained in Turkey and who do not also possess Turkish citizenship. U.S. citizens - although the United States does not have a legal right to access the dual citizens, and that's the case in quite a few countries, Iran, for example - U.S.-Turkish citizens detained in Turkey, and we continue to press for access to them."

CeCe Heil, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told PJM in March that Brunson was not allowed visits from U.S. consular officials in the first 30 days of his detention and was only given a lawyer at the Dec. 9 hearing in which he was ordered held behind bars.

"Why him? Why now, after 23 years of being there peacefully?" she asked, noting that she was not aware of any other members of the church taken into custody. Brunson was attacked in 2011 by a lone man who was later charged and acquitted of being a member of al-Qaeda, but Heil said the family had not been subject to any government harassment over the years -- making the pastor's detention "extremely shocking" to friends and family.

"It's disconcerting to have a U.S. pastor from North Carolina siting in a Turkish prison, of a NATO ally," the attorney said.