Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who has been imprisoned in Turkey for nearly a year on dubious terrorism charges, is now facing new charges: “gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and to change the constitutional order.”
Brunson and his family had lived in the Turkish city of Izmir for 23 years, where he was the pastor of a small Presbyterian church. He was arrested, initially without charges, amid the crackdown on Turkey’s political opposition following last summer’s failed coup attempt. He was eventually charged with membership in what the Turkish government calls the Fethullahist Terror Organization—the followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government blames for the coup. (Gulen and his followers deny playing a role. The true story is uncertain and extremely complicated.) Brunson was also accused of giving a sermon to Kurds with “a special purpose” at his church, implying that he is a Kurdish nationalist sympathizer as well as a Gulenist. There’s not a lot of overlap between those groups, other than the fact that Erdogan’s government is hostile to both.
There’s little to no evidence that the Christian minister is a member of an Islamic social movement, much less proof that he plotted to overthrow the Turkish government. As I wrote in May, there’s been speculation that the Turkish government is using Brunson’s case to put pressure on the U.S. government, which it wants to extradite Gulen himself. The imam has asylum in the U.S. and lives in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. There also has been speculation that Turkey might release Brunson to the U.S. in exchange for Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman the feds arrested in Miami in 2016 for evading sanctions against Iran.
President Trump, who has praised Erdogan’s counterterrorism efforts and actions to consolidate power, raised Brunson’s case during a meeting with the Turkish president at the White House in May. And a State Department report released by Secretary Rex Tillerson this month rapped Turkey for its treatment of religious minorities. Brunson is being represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group led by attorney Jay Sekulow, who is also part of Trump’s personal legal team.
So far, there doesn’t seem to be any movement toward an agreement to free Brunson, and the latest charges don’t bode well.