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Turkey Suggests White House Effort to Free Pastor Is Tied to Midterm Elections

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu,

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested today that the stepped-up effort from the Trump administration to free a North Carolina pastor is tied to midterm elections, telling reporters that there's "no change" right now in Brunson's case.

“At the Turkish Ambassador’s request, Ambassador John Bolton met with Ambassador Serdar Kilic of Turkey today in the White House," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday. "They discussed Turkey’s continued detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and the state of the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”

Çavuşoğlu said today at a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that the White House called for the meeting, not the other way around.

“There are those who want to resolve this Brunson issue while some others want to prolong it until the November elections in the U.S.,” Çavuşoğlu said, according to Hurriyet, claiming the White House was being confusing and miscommunicating on the matter.

“What our ambassador has told Bolton is clear: There are issues we have been discussing. We have drafted road maps and action plans with regard to these issues," he said. "We have updated them once again."

The administration has not made clear why it is only publicly focusing on Brunson's case, which it began highlighting this spring, and not other U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Turkey, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge and professor Ismail Kul. Turkey also holds three U.S. Foreign Service nationals -- Hamza Uluçay, Metin Topuz, and Nazmi Mete Canturk -- diplomatic workers who have given decades of service to America.

Brunson’s lawyer, İsmail Cem Halavurt, today filed another appeal -- the first one was rejected by an Izmir court -- asking that Brunson be released from house arrest and that his travel ban be lifted.

Brunson, who was moved from prison to house arrest last month, faces 35 years in prison after the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swept up the longtime Turkey resident, along with several other Americans, in his post-coup purges. Since July 15, 2016, the Turkish government has arrested 80,147 people on muddled charges of being tied to Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based moderate political foe of Erdoğan. As the regime has repeatedly pressed the topic of seeking Gülen's extradition from the U.S., it's believed the Americans have been detained as potential swap leverage.

Brunson and his wife, Norine, raised their family in Turkey and ministered through the Protestant Izmir Resurrection Church in the Aegean coast city. In October 2016, after living in the country for 23 years, 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. They did not shut down the church, which has continued operating under one of Brunson's ministry partners, or arrest other members.

Norine was eventually released and allowed to stay in the country. The pastor, though, was sent to jail in December 2016 on a hazy accusation of "membership in an armed terrorist organization."

The indictment released in March charges that Brunson is linked to both the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Gülen, whom Erdoğan blames for the July 2016 coup attempt. Prosecutors want Brunson to serve 20 years for espionage and 15 years for “committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations without being a member." In May, Turkish state media reported that a secret witness described as a former member of the church has been claiming that Brunson funneled assistance to Kurds. He has denied the charges, and his next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12.

Gölge and his family were visiting his parents in Turkey in July 2016 when he was arrested in the regime's post-coup sweeps; he was recently sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. He has reportedly suffered harsh treatment behind bars because he refused Turkish authorities' request to use his NASA position to spy for the Turkish government.

His wife, Kubra, also a U.S. citizen, has been forced to sell the family home in Houston to try to make ends meet. “When I read the newspapers, I feel frustrated sometimes like they’re only trying to save Brunson but not us,” she told NBC News this week. Kubra has been banned from leaving Turkey with their sons, ages 2 and 7.

Kubra noted that an April letter signed by 66 senators warning Erdoğan of retaliatory action if Brunson isn't released did not name any of the other U.S. hostages. “I feel frustrated; [Brunson’s] not the only guy whose life went down,” she said. “We are also citizens.”

Kul, a 45-year-old chemistry professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, was vacationing in Turkey when the coup attempt happened. He was detained in August 2016 and has been banned from leaving the country. "As an American citizen, I wish [the] president and vice president brought up our names," Kul told NBC.

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department sanctioned Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu for playing "leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention" of Brunson.

“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”