US slaps sanctions on Turkey ministers as pastor row ramps up
LONDON - The United States on Wednesday hit two top Turkish officials with sanctions over the ongoing detention of an American pastor facing terror charges, heaping pressure on Ankara to release the prisoner fueling a bitter diplomatic feud.
The move targeting Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu further ratcheted up tensions between the NATO allies, with Ankara vowing to retaliate over the measures and what it dubbed an “aggressive attitude.”
Gul shrugged off the decision, writing on Twitter that he had no assets outside Turkey and that he dreamt of owning “a small olive grove” in his Turkish hometown.
Andrew Brunson, who led a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir, was placed under house arrest last week after nearly two years in jail on charges of espionage and supporting terror groups. He faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted.
“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong, and we believe he’s a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told journalists.
“At the president’s direction, the Department of the Treasury is sanctioning Turkey’s minister of justice and minister of interior, both of whom played leading roles in the arrest and detention of Pastor Brunson.”
The sanctions freeze any property or assets on US soil held by the two ministers, and bar US citizens from doing business with them.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted: “The US attempt to impose sanctions will not remain without an answer.”
A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement called the sanctions a “disrespectful intervention in our legal system” that would harm “the constructive efforts toward resolving problems between the two countries.”
“Without delay, there will be a response to this aggressive attitude that will not serve any purpose,” the ministry added.
“We call on the US administration to turn back from this wrong decision.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, and has plans to meet him next week to demand Brunson’s freedom, the State Department said.
“Turkey knows our position well: Pastor Brunson must be released from house arrest and brought back home,” Pompeo’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters traveling with him.
“This has gone on far too long.”
Pompeo said Trump had decided that sanctions were “the appropriate action.”
Brunson was initially detained in October 2016 during Turkey’s crackdown following an attempted putsch.
He stands accused of carrying out activities on behalf of two organizations Ankara considers terror groups.
One is led by the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish authorities say was behind a 2016 failed coup. The other is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The pastor denies the charges and his defense team argues the case is built on questionable witness statements. His next hearing is set for October 12.
Vice President Mike Pence, who like Brunson is an evangelical Christian, has declared him “a victim of religious persecution.”
But representatives of Turkey’s religious communities denied that their members were facing oppression.
“Statements alleging and suggesting there is oppression toward us are completely unfounded and injudicious,” said a joint statement signed by the representatives of 18 religious minority groups.
“As religious representatives of ancient communities with different religions and beliefs, which have been in this country for centuries, we hereby declare that we are practicing our religions in accordance with our traditions and are practicing our beliefs freely,” read the statement.
The representatives included Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew, Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul Archbishop Aram Atesyan, and Chief Rabbi of the Turkish Jewish Community Ishak Haleva, Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church Mor Filiksinos Yusuf Çetin, Apostolic Administrator of the Armenian Archeparchy of Istanbul Archbishop Levon Zekiyan, Chaldean Catholic Community spiritual leader François Yakan and pastor Krikor Agabaloglu of the Gedikpasa Armenian Protestant Church.
On Wednesday, Turkish Recep Tayyip President Erdogan accused the United States of having an “evangelist, Zionist mentality” and using “threat-filled language.”
Brunson is one of tens of thousands of people — several of them Americans — detained on similar charges during the state of emergency declared by Erdogan in the wake of the 2016 failed coup bid.
The spat over the pastor has stoked tensions between the two governments, which were already quarreling over Washington’s support of a Syrian Kurdish militia.
Turkey is also angry at the United States for its refusal to extradite Gulen, who lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania and vehemently denies that he masterminded the failed 2016 coup bid.
Ankara meanwhile upset Washington by imprisoning two Turkish employees of American consulates in the country and holding another under house arrest on terror-related charges.
A senior Turkish official on Thursday accused US President Donald Trump of jeopardizing long-standing close ties between Turkey and the United States.
Ilnur Cevik, a senior adviser to Erdogan told The Associated Press in an interview that Turkey was still deliberating possible measures but wanted to “minimize the damage.”
“Everyone’s very disappointed. Nobody expected this kind of treatment (toward) two Cabinet ministers,” Cevik said. “President Trump is taking a very small case and jeopardizing Turkish-American relations and Turkish-American friendship.”
“What the Turkish side is doing is not burning all the bridges but trying to keep the bridge intact and try to salvage whatever is left of the relations,” he added.
“President Trump insults the Turkish judicial system,” Cevik said. “He says the pastor is being kept a hostage in Turkey. He is not a hostage — he is under trial in Turkey.”
Berat Albayrak, the Turkish treasury and finance minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law, on Thursday called the sanctions “unacceptable” but said they would have “limited” effect on Turkey and its economy.
The imposition of sanctions on the two ministers is sure to fuel the fire.
“President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the punitive measures against Gul and Soylu.
Erdogan has warned that Turkey would seek international arbitration if the United States refused to deliver F-35 fighter jets in retaliation.
Turkey’s lira slid to a record low beyond 5 to the dollar and stocks fell on Thursday.
The lira first touched 5 to the dollar on Wednesday, when the White House announced the sanctions.
The lira hit a record low of 5.0630 to the dollar at 0720 GMT.
The currency has lost a fifth of its value this year, battered by rising inflation and concerns over the central bank’s independence in the face of repeated calls by Erdogan for lower interest rates.
Istanbul’s main share index, the BIST 100, fell 2 percent on Thursday, with banking stocks among the decliners.
(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)