A North Carolina pastor who made Turkey his home for more than two decades has been sitting behind bars since last year, held for unclear reasons but apparently swept up in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s engulfing purge of perceived enemies.
Since the failed July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s Islamist government has detained 93,248 people, arrested 46,274, fired 128,625 people of varying professions via government decree, shut down 2,099 schools, fired 7,316 academics, dismissed 4,070 judges and prosecutors, closed 149 media outlets, and imprisoned 162 journalists, as of Feb. 28.
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. In 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.
CeCe Heil, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told PJM today 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. Files are still sealed in the case and there’s “very little” documentation, including any evidence, accessible to lawyers.
Heil said they’re “absolutely” concerned that the pastor was swept up in Erdoğan’s fervent purge.
“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.
Heil said Brunson has not been tortured while in custody, though his living conditions are concerning especially with warm weather approaching. He’s being kept with as many as 20 men at a time in a cell built for eight people, with “very spotty” access to water, no air conditioning and no other Christians.
“It’s disconcerting to have a U.S. pastor from North Carolina siting in a Turkish prison, of a NATO ally,” the attorney said.
Last month, 78 lawmakers signed a letter calling for Brunson’s release, led by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“There appears to be no evidence to substantiate the charges against him for membership in an armed terrorist organization. Moreover, your government has repeatedly denied regular and appropriate access to legal counsel and American consular services,” the lawmakers wrote to Erdoğan.
“Mr. Brunson’s imprisonment has been raised repeatedly by U.S. Government officials with officials of the Government of Turkey,” they added. “Unfortunately, high-level efforts to secure Mr. Brunson’s release have been unsuccessful. We have closely followed developments with this case, and are deeply disappointed.”
The Congress members asked the Turkish leader to consider Brunson’s case in the “spirit of partnership” and think of “how the recent treatment of Mr. Brunson places significant strain not only on him and his family, but also on the robust bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey.”
“We appeal to you to inquire as to the options for promptly deporting Mr. Brunson and to act on them expeditiously.”
While the depleted judiciary and Erdoğan’s persistent state of emergency slow the progression of Brunson’s case in Turkey, the administration transition in the United States has proven “a little problematic,” Heil said, as the pastor’s advocates were working with the last administration to secure his release and now are “in a little bit of a holding pattern” waiting for key State Department positions to be filled.
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass, appointed by President Obama in 2014, is still in his role and has been “actively working” on the case, Heil confirmed. “We do know that the State Department is very aware of the situation,” she added.
“We’re waiting for the current administration to take some action, whether that would be through Secretary Tillerson or President Trump himself taking action, that’s where we are,” Heil said. “We keep pushing the matter up the ladder.”
The ACLJ is also gathering petition signatures demanding the pastor’s release.