American pastor Andrew Brunson continues to be held behind bars in Turkey following yet another postponement in the controversial trial against him. The Turkish authorities have accused Brunson of terrorism and espionage related offences, and prosecutors are seeking a 35-year prison sentence. However, his legal team says he is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Brunson, aged 50, was arrested during the purges which occurred after the failed 2016 military coup. In the purges, thousands of people have been rounded up and detained with little or no evidence against them. He is the pastor of a small evangelical church in the Turkish city of Izmir.
The case has put additional strain on US Turkish relations, which are already tense. Many in the US are deeply anxious about the increasingly authoritarian policies of current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. High-level U.S. officials, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, have called for Brunson’s release.
Yet on 7 May, after an eleven-hour hearing, the Turkish court decided to keep Brunson in prison and adjourn proceedings until 18 July. The decision has been a blow to Brunson’s supporters, who were hoping he may be released on bail.
A hostage pawn
Some observers suggest that the Turkish authorities are holding Brunson as a pawn in a game of international hostage diplomacy. Meaning, Turkey wants to pressurise the US into sending Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey. Gulen is an exiled Muslim cleric believed to have organised the failed 2016 coup. He is currently living in America, but the US government says it won’t deliver him back to Turkey.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is deeply disappointed by the latest developments in the Brunson case. Vice chair Sandra Jolley attended the hearing in Turkey on 7 May. She said, ‘We leave the courthouse with serious concerns. Today’s eleven hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life’.
She added, ‘Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defence without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable’.
According to reports from within the courtroom, prosecutors cited anonymous witnesses who, instead of taking the stand, appeared on two large screens via video link, with their faces blurred and their voices altered.
Isolated and dislocated
Speaking about the wider situation for religious freedom in Turkey, Jolley said, ‘The truth is that this case is part of a larger decline in personal freedoms, including religious freedom and human rights, that we are witnessing in Turkey in recent years’.
Jolley was allowed to visit Brunson in prison on a previous visit to Turkey. She said at the time he had lost a lot of weight, and he is ‘the only English speaker, and the only Christian in the prison. He lives in a world of physical isolation and psychological dislocation’.
Christians in the UK should pray that there will be justice for pastor Brunson. Pray that his faith and health will remain strong while he is detained. Though he is separated from his liberty, from his family, and from his church, give thanks that he cannot be separated from his Saviour. Pray that he may be able to minister and witness to those within the prison, showing the love of Christ.