'Extremely Shocking' Detention of North Carolina Pastor by Turkey Drags On

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.