As part of a “faith-based crusade,” President Trump is threatening sanctions against Turkey over a simple preacher who has become the focus of an international dispute.
Andrew Craig Brunson, 50, is an evangelical pastor originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, who 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. 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.
We welcome long overdue news that Pastor Brunson has been moved from prison to house arrest in #Turkey, but it is not enough. We have seen no credible evidence against Mr. Brunson, and call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner. pic.twitter.com/So2A4hfinZ
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 25, 2018
Both President Trump and Vice President Pence reacted sharply, emphasizing Pastor Brunson’s religion as part of the issue at hand. 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.
The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted his response to the U.S. threats.
Noone dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) July 26, 2018
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.”
As part of the negotiations, Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release Ebru Ozkan, a Turkish woman arrested during a visit to Israel in June. She was accused of smuggling for Hamas. Ozkan was released two weeks ago and a Washington Post article reported that her release was part of a deal for the release of Brunson.
“The deal was a carom shot, personally sealed by Trump, to trade a Turkish citizen imprisoned on terrorism charges in Israel for Brunson’s release,” the Washington Post report said, stating that Trump and Netanyahu discussed the issue the day before Ozkan’s release.
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.