Pastor Andrew Brunson has been in the custody of the Turkish authorities for almost two years, arrested in October 2016 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Though the U.S. diplomatic apparatus has done virtually everything in its power to have him freed and returned to America, Brunson remains under house arrest while his criminal trial runs its course.
Despite spending 23 years pastoring a small church in the western coastal town of Imzir, the authorities have accused the North Carolina native of playing a central part in an elaborate anti-government conspiracy which includes Mormons, an Islamic faith group called the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization, or “FETO” and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
But it doesn’t stop there — the Turkish government also alleges that Brunson’s crew included an Israeli, an Iranian and even current and former agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
One of the other key figures in the convoluted conspiracy is a man named Kenneth Abney, a retired U.S. special forces major and former Mormon missionary who used to minister just down the road from where Brunson’s church was located in the Alsancak neighborhood of Imzir. Almost unbelievably, much of the prosecution’s case against Pastor Brunson rests on evidence which proves that he and Abney’s phones were both present in Alsancak on the day the alleged planning and plotting took place — not too far fetched, considering both men were residents of the area. By all accounts, however, the men were not even slightly familiar with each other.
“We never met Brunson” Abney told Bloomberg. “We just wanted to help people.”
The Mormon missionary and his wife, Marilyn, simply served the local community — supplying wheelchairs to the disabled, pomegranate trees to poor villagers and installing computers at local schools.
According to Abney, a key witness in the case is a former member of their church congregation, who claims he has evidence of the planned coup which has been extracted from the Mormon missionary’s computer. But it is this alleged evidence that has led the witness to sketch out an utterly outlandish conspiracy.
The witness, “Dua,” claims that there is an “umbrella organization” for all Christian churches in Turkey which involves the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency, who supposedly “deploy” missionaries strategically across the nation. Dua claims that the members of this organization “identify each other in the field with a secret handshake” and “a curl of the middle fingers into the palm.” Oh, and that the Mormons sent to infiltrate Turkish military camps all had one finger missing.
Dua also asserted that the Mormon community, combined with evangelical missionaries, is attempting to usher in the final, end-of-days prophesies put forward in the biblical book of Revelation.
That’s where the Kurds come in. According to Dua, the Mormon-Evangelical plotters believe that, by combining forces with PKK dissidents, they are reuniting “the lost 13th tribe of Israel.”
In Revelation 7, “The 144,000 of Israel Sealed,” there are 12 tribes listed as “sealed” in the Kingdom of Heaven. There is much debate over the existence of a thirteenth tribe, let alone what the name of this people group might be.
Dua has made several appearances via video link, face obscured, in the Brunson trial. The prolific use of “secret witnesses” in the Turkish judiciary has been widely criticized by international onlookers as detrimental to a fair trial.
“It’s all crazy,” said Murat Cakir, a member of the Mormon church hailing from Istanbul.
Erich Wieger, a former preacher from Brunson’s church, added that the pastor’s beliefs on the End Times did not match up with the accusations leveled against him. ”
We had quite a few friendly arguments about that,” he said, noting that Brunson personally believes the book of Revelation is largely symbolic and allegorical.
But despite the weak evidence, Dua has addressed the courts on multiple occasions, veiled for anonymity, accusing Brunson, Abney and Cakir of meeting to conspire against the government. The accusations stretch to alleging that the triplet surveyed local gas stations to piece together “logistics centers” for a new occupying military force, when, in fact, any such plans were compiled by a “Turkish LDS staff moonlighting for a British data collection company.”
The whole thing is, according to many, a complete and utter farce. From secret witnesses to confused eschatological motives, the Turkish authorities really are stretching their corrupt judiciary to a whole new level.
And to make things just a little bit more complex, the prosecution also insists that Brunson is in cahoots with a Turkish-nationalist Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of Erdogan — but now an arch-enemy of the hardline president. Evidence-based links between the two men are, unsurprisingly, nonexistent.
“There is no relationship between Brunson and the Fethullah Gulen Organization,” stated Ihsan Ozbek, the chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, according to Slate. “He’s a pastor and he’s been a pastor for 23 years without any problems,” added American Center for Law and Justice lawyer Heil. “He does not have any ties to any armed terrorist organization.”
But the religious persecution element of this case stretches far beyond Pastor Brunson and his smalltime ministry activities. Turkey has been cracking down on the Christian faith for years, and Pastor Brunson has found himself in the unfortunate position of having his trial used to strike fear into the rest of the Jesus-following community. In addition, Brunson is caught up at the heart of a fierce diplomatic battle between his home nation and the place in which he ministered for over two decades.
“The pastor is merely a symptom of the rot that’s afflicted the relationship for years,” wrote Marc Champion and Cagan Koc at Bloomberg. “Since the failed coup attempt, two Turkish U.S. consulate officials have been arrested, and a Turkish-American sentenced to jail.”
The multi-faceted disputes between Turkey and the United States continue to escalate in seriousness.
“The case won’t be over” if Brunson is returned home, explained Cem Halavurt, Brunson’s defense attorney. “There are so many accusations. I think they will start an operation against the other religious groups.”
For now, though there are murmurings that he might shortly be released, Brunson battles on through his trial.
“Andrew was remanded to prison until his next hearing, October 12, when two more secret witnesses, one more prisoner and at least one other witness will testify against him,” Brunson’s wife, Norine, wrote on Facebook in July. “I know his heart must be broken tonight, again.”
“On the positive side, the name of the Lord was absolutely glorified!!! I will post his full statements when I get them. As he explained why he was here, he gave the gospel. He publicly forgave all those who have come against him, forgiving as he has been forgiven. He said ‘It is a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ.’
Blessed am I, as I suffer for him. Blessed am I, as I am slandered. Blessed am I, as I am being lied about. Blessed am I, as I am imprisoned. Blessed am I, as I share his suffering. I am incredibly proud of him as I am quite sure he doesn’t feel that blessing at this point.
There have been many prayers for the legal side of things, but let’s just pray for a miraculous release.”
In late August, Brunson’s request for release from house arrest was rejected by the courts. Please continue to pray for this man of faith and his family as this prolonged and horrific battle wages on.