American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who’s being held in a Turkish prison, is getting support from President Donald Trump and a petition for his release spreading across the nation.
Brunson, who is on trial for his Christian faith, was sent back to prison following his hearing Monday.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason…” the president tweeted this week.
Trump dispatched two American officials to monitor the trial. Both Sam Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms, and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis attended Brunson’s trial and reported directly to the president.
“The judge said the trial will be continued until May 7 and ordered Pastor Andrew Brunson to return to prison. Instead of being returned to the prison he was at prior to this hearing date, he’s been sent back to a prison that is notorious for it’s overcrowding and it is a prison where eight prisoners are to be held in one cell. Instead, there are 22,” American Center for Law and Justice Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said on his podcast Monday.
Sekulow called this latest development “disturbing” and is asking the international community to continue to call for the pastor’s release.
Brunson has been imprisoned for 18 months in both grossly overcrowded prison cells and solitary confinement.
“His pretrial detention, I would argue, has become a sort of torture,” Aykan Erdemir said. Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of Turkey’s parliament.
He says Brunson’s trial was historically long – 12 hours.
“Right after the noon break when he came back and was defending himself he had a mental breakdown. He sat down; it’s reported that he started crying and he told the judge how difficult it is to survive in this kind of isolation chamber,” Erdemir said.
“The next three weeks are critical to turn up the pressure on Turkey,” Sekulow warned.
Pastor Brunson took the stand Monday and did his best to convince the court to give him his freedom. He faces 35 years in prison.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out,” Brunson told the court, according to Reuters. “I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.”
ACLJ Senior Counsel Cece Heil reported the Turkish government is using false testimonies and anonymous witnesses to build a case against the pastor.
“According to Mr. Cem Halavurt (Turkish attorney representing Pastor Brunson) Turkey has resorted to false testimony by secret witnesses, stating in the recent interrogation report that, ‘This is one of those operations that we all have witnessed in many investigations within the Turkish judicial system with fake digital data and directed statements by secret witnesses. We clearly see that a similar operation has already been started against my client,'” Heil reports.
Meanwhile, Sekulow is encouraging believers to join more than half a million others in signing a petition calling for the pastor’s release.
“I know that neither of the two had confirmation ahead of the visit that they would be allowed into the courtroom. They took a risk and I’m glad they did. They certainly raised the profile of this case. I think their presence conveyed to their Turkish counterparts that Pastor Brunson is not forgotten,” Erdemir said.
“The administration is deeply concerned about this case. We completely believe factually he is innocent. Andrew Brunson is innocent. We are hopeful that the judicial system will find that, that he will be released, released soon,” Brownback told reporters after the trial.
Turkey accuses the 50-year-old North Carolina native of helping orchestrate a coup that threatened President Recep Erdoğan’s leadership in 2016.
The 62-page indictment also charges the pastor with committing an act of terrorism by spreading the Ggospel in the majority Muslim country.
“Turkey has literally taken the position that Christianization is terrorism,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Cece Heil said. “They have no specific evidence that Pastor Brunson has committed any crime. The fact that he is a Christian, and specifically a Christian pastor, is what they are equating as terrorism.”
Sen. Tillis traveled from North Carolina to attend the trial and expressed “deep disappointment” in the court ruling.
“After the questionable evidence presented at the hearing, I am more convinced than ever that Pastor Brunson has a compelling case to be released and should be exonerated,” Tillis said in a statement.
“Turkey and the United States have a long history of alliance and partnership, and I hope the Turkish government will make a good faith effort to serve proper justice to Pastor Brunson and allow him to be free once again,” Tillis added.
Erdemir says Brunson is simply a pawn in Erdogan’s effort to practice “hostage diplomacy” with the US.
“At the center of his paranoia is his fixation with the West and what he sees as the Judeo-Christian civilization. This is part of his crusade against the West,” Erdemir said.
A group of Christians gathered just outside the White House gates earlier in the week to pray for Brunson’s release and protest his captivity.
“Hebrews 13:3 says this: ‘Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them and those who are suffering, you suffer along with them,’ ” Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, stated at the prayer vigil.