American Pastor Andrew Brunson has spent the past 18 months in a Turkish prison following his arrest on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. Despite pressure from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to secure Brunson’s release, he remains in prison for allegedly being linked to a rebel group that was seeking to orchestrate a coup. Now, he is finally going to trial.
Brunson’s lawyer argues that his client has been imprisoned solely due to his Christian faith, and should be acquitted immediately. Ismail Cem Halavurt explained that Pastor Brunson, detained 18 months ago, faced charges that were “totally unfounded,” according to Reuters.
Brunson is originally from North Carolina but has spent the last 27 years ministering in the majority-Muslim nation of Turkey. The embattled pastor’s trial began Monday.
“There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith,” Halavurt told Reuters on the eve of the trial, noting that Brunson’s religious role had been “classified as aiding terror organizations.”
Reverend Franklin Graham posted to Facebook Sunday, asking his followers to pray for Brunson as he heads to court.
“He is being falsely accused; and in my opinion, this is because of his Christian faith,” Graham wrote. “Some of his family live in the area where my father lived in North Carolina. I know that this is very difficult, to be falsely accused in a Muslim country. Please join me in lifting Pastor Brunson up in prayer, that God will protect him and give him courage and boldness as he stands before the lions.”
Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom, and U.S. Senator Thom Tillis attended the hearing Monday.
In March, the two vice chairs of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga, called for Brunson’s “immediate release” and urged President Donald Trump’s administration to “redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson’s release.”
“No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American,” they said, calling Brunson’s detainment as a “miscarriage of justice.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously attempted to raise the possibility of a prisoner swap. He wants the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen to be extradited to Ankara so he can face charges related to the planned coup.
“The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania … You can give him right away,” Erdogan said back in September.
The prosecution is seeking a jail sentence of up to 35 years for Brunson, arguing that he was aiding armed terrorist groups and providing them with confidential government and military information that could be used to sabotage the government. He has been accused of working with Gulen’s network as well as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Halavurt, however, is confident that Brunson will be acquitted, and is demanding the swift release of his client.
“Our prior expectation from the hearing is ending the arrest,” he said. “We want Brunson to be freed immediately.”
According to CeCe Heil, executive senior counsel at the religious freedom legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, Mr. Brunson has lost around 50 pounds during his detention and been denied private meetings with his lawyer, as reported by the BBC.
The congregation of Ressurection Church in Izmir spent time praying for their pastor Sunday. Brunson’s wife, Norine, read a letter from Andrew, in which he talked about the abject darkness and silence of his incarceration.
“Your brother Andrew, imprisoned for God,” the pastor concluded his message.
Please pray that the outcome is positive for Pastor Brunson and his family, and that justice might be served.
“I’m still waiting for my dad to walk me down the aisle,” said Jacqueline Furnari, Brunson’s daughter. “And I’m still waiting for that father-daughter dance.”
Norine Brunson posted a heartfelt message to Facebook, imploring people to pray.
“Please pray that the cord around Andrew would be loosened/untied. Although I don’t understand this completely, the Lord gave this very clearly so I am praying it by faith. Please join by faith that what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven,” she wrote. “We are sooo grateful for you, our huge family in Christ.”