President Trump is threatening to impose sanctions against Turkey over a simple preacher who has become the focus of an international dispute.
Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson, 50, from Black Mountain, North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for 23 years where he served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant church with about 25 congregants.
Brunson was arrested in October 2016 shortly after an unsuccessful coup d’etat against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tens of thousands of Turkish military personnel, civil servants, educators, academics, dissidents, and journalists were arrested but Christian clergy were targeted for the crime of “Christianization.” Brunson stood accused of being a member of the Gulen Movement, an Islamic movement whose leader, Fethullah Gulen, has lived in the U.S. since 1999. Turkey has long sought to have Gulen extradited and it is believed that Brunson’s incarceration is an attempt at pressuring the U.S. government into complying.
Brunson was released to house arrest on Wednesday, after one-and-a-half years in prison after successful pressure from the Trump adminsitration. Forbidden from leaving the country, he will be electronically monitored. Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported he had been released for “health problems.” Charged with “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member”, Brunson faces a penalty of up to 15 years in jail. He could receive another 20 years if he is found guilty of espionage.
This conditional release was not sufficient for the US government who had been negotiating for his release and expected him to be released on July 18. This was expressed in a tweet by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Both President Trump and Vice President Pence reacted sharply, emphasizing Pastor Brunson’s religion as part of the issue at hand. The president has shown a particular interest for Christian imprisoned for their faith and has dispatched high-level administration officials around the world to advocate on their behalf for release. At a conference on religious freedom in Washington on Thursday, Pence called on an increasingly autocratic Erdogan to release Brunson or face significant sanctions.
“Brunson is an innocent man, there is no credible evidence against him,” Pence said in his speech. “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,” Pence added.
This was quickly followed by a tweet from President Trump, backing up the vice president’s threat.
Ibrahim Kalim, spokesman for Erdogan, made a statement to the media saying that the U.S. “must understand that it cannot reach desired results by threatening Turkey over an issue which falls within the jurisdiction of our country’s independent judiciary.”
The U.S. and Turkey are allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but relations between the two countries have been strained, particularly over U.S. support of factions in Syria that oppose Erdogan’s regime.