Quite a few mainstream news outlets are finally chronicling the drama of a Christian pastor, a Turkish prison and a tussle over religious freedom that’s pitting President Donald Trump against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At issue are the few Christian missionaries in Turkey (the only Muslim majority country I know that actually allows missionaries to operate there) who are pawns in a war of words between the two countries.
In the summer of 2016, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pulled all of its missionaries out of Turkey, sensing things were going to get worse, not better, for believers there.
So here’s how the Wall Street Journal described a trial that happened this week:
An American pastor who has spent 18 months in Turkish custody appeared for the first time in court Monday, denying accusations of espionage and contacts with terrorists in a case that has exacerbated tense relations between Washington and Ankara.
Turkish prosecutors allege Andrew Brunson colluded with a group Turkey blames for the 2016 failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well with Kurdish militants Turkey regards as terrorists. If convicted he faces up to 35 years in prison.
The evangelical pastor, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and ran a small Presbyterian church in the coastal city of Izmir when he was detained in October 2016, said he was never involved in any illegal activity.
A photo with that article shows Sam Brownback, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, holding a press conference outside the prison. Further down, we hear what’s at stake here.
Mr. Erdogan has suggested that Turkey might free Mr. Brunson if the U.S. deported Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric accused by Turkey of orchestrating the failed coup.
U.S. officials have said swapping Mr. Gulen -- who lives in Pennsylvania and denies playing any role in the coup attempt -- for the pastor was out of question.
A Journal editorial revealed more details.
Turkey is in essence holding Mr. Brunson as an American hostage. Mr. Erdogan gave the game away last year when he suggested swapping Mr. Brunson for Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based imam who Mr. Erdogan blames for the coup attempt. Mr. Erdogan is obsessed with Mr. Gulen and claims the U.S. is protecting him from justice. But the Turks haven’t presented credible evidence to justify Mr. Gulen’s extradition to Turkey, where he can never get a fair trial.
President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others have asked Mr. Erdogan for the pastor’s release. And in March the U.S. dropped charges against members of Mr. Erdogan’s security detail who beat up protestors while in Washington last year, in the hope their release would soften Mr. Erdogan’s stance. To no avail.
I’d heard the bit about the security detail as everyone was scratching their heads last year wondering why the charges got dropped. Obviously Erdogan doesn’t take hints.
The Washington Post has also carried an editorial criticizing Turkey for imprisoning American citizens for no reason and ran a news article on Sunday. Unlike the Journal, the Post didn’t specify Brunson’s denominational ties.
Brunson, 50, a Christian missionary from North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for 23 years. He was detained in October along with his wife, Norine Brunson, though she was released.
The indictment, based on evidence provided in part by three secret informants, accuses Brunson of acting in coordination with Gulen’s organization as well as the PKK. It also accuses him of attempting to convert Kurds to Christianity.
Those of us who’ve been to the Kurdish part of Turkey and seen the horrors of how Turkey treats its Kurdish minority do wonder why, all of a sudden, Turkey is worried about someone converting the hated Kurds out of Islam.
A New York Times story named Brunson’s congregation as Resurrection Church in Izmir and had some good quotes from a reporter who was at the trial.
Mr. Brunson categorically denied accusations that he had encouraged Kurdish separatist sentiment in his church and that he had held meetings to support terrorist groups and their aims under the cover of humanitarian and missionary work.
“I’ve never done anything against Turkey,” he told the court. “I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out.”
No media organization is quite gotten Brunson’s denomination right. He’s not just “evangelical” or “Presbyterian” but he belongs to a newish denomination known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church that was founded in 1981. And from what I can discern, there wasn’t a lot of news in the secular media on this man’s imprisonment until U.S. government officials got involved.
The Charlotte Observer, which is close to the pastor’s hometown of Black Mountain, N.C., has also been covering this story but didn’t fly a reporter to Izmir to cover the trial.
CBN, whose video is shown atop this piece, was the only outlet I saw that revealed that Monday's court hearing lasted 12 hours.
The latest news is President Trump's tweet supporting Brunson, which is a strong hint to the Turks to back off.
I hope more reporters get to Brunson's May 7 hearing, because the more eyes on this story, the more embarrassment Turkey will experience about this case. Let's see if Erdogan tweets back.