US, Turkey tensions rise over case of American pastor
WASHINGTON - The Trump administration threatened Turkey with harsh economic penalties unless Ankara releases an American pastor who has been held for nearly two years on espionage and terrorism-related charges.
US President Donald Trump wrote in a tweet July 26 that the United States would “impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long-time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” a US citizen and Christian minister who has lived in Turkey for 23 years and leads a small church in Izmir.
The same day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu “it is well past time for this innocent Pastor Andrew Brunson to come home,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Trump’s tweet was one day after a Turkish court ordered Brunson moved from prison to house arrest while his trial continues. Arrested in the summer of 2016 as Turkish authorities cracked down after a failed coup attempt, Brunson was charged with espionage and collusion with terrorist groups. US officials say he is not guilty.
Pompeo said Brunson’s move to house arrest was a “positive development” and added “it is not enough” to hold Brunson on house arrest while his trial continues.
The White House quickly turned sharply critical, issuing threats as the State Department wrapped up its first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a 3-day convention in Washington of religious leaders from around the world aimed at promoting global religious freedom.
Speaking before Trump wrote his tweet, US Vice-President Mike Pence told the conference: “To President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.
“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
Brunson’s detention is a sore spot between the United States and Turkey and a rallying cry for American evangelicals. Trump appealed to them in his tweet, calling Brunson “a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
The campaign for Brunson’s release has been led by the American Centre for Law and Justice, a conservative, Christian-based advocacy group founded in 1990 by Pat Robertson, an influential US Christian leader and broadcasting executive. Members of the US Congress, including many conservatives, have sought to block the sale of US-made fighter jets to Turkey until Brunson is released.
“The charges against Andrew Brunson should be dropped and the US should keep up the pressure until Turkey begins acting like a NATO ally again,” US Senator James Lankford, a conservative Oklahoma Republican, wrote on Twitter July 16.
Pence called Brunson a “victim of religious persecution,” saying in his speech that Brunson, 50, had been raising his family in Turkey and “sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, faithfully, in his ministry.” Pence added: “To believers across America, I say: Pray for Pastor Brunson. While he is out of jail, he is still not free.”
Max Boot, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that, although he welcomed Trump’s push to release Brunson, “what about the dozen other Americans detained, including a NASA scientist? Problem is they aren’t a focus for Trump’s evangelical constituency.”
Approximately two dozen US citizens — most of them dual citizens of the United States and Turkey — are being detained in Turkey, US Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell said at a congressional hearing in June. Most are detained on “criminal of foreign terrorist charges,” Mitchell said. “It’s at the forefront of our agenda with Turkey.”
Turkish officials insist that Brunson is guilty and are using his case as leverage to compel the United States to extradite a Turkish cleric living in America whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, denies any involvement in the coup.