US pastor Andrew Brunson denies terrorism charges in Turkey
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Evangelical pastor Andrew Craig Brunson went on trial in Turkey on Monday on charges of aiding terror groups and spying in a case that has deepened tensions with Washington.
The 50-year-old pastor from North Carolina was arrested by Turkish authorities in October 2016 and charged with espionage. He is also charged with engaging in activities on behalf of a group led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen – who Ankara says is behind a failed 2016 coup – and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Both groups are banned by Turkey as terror organisations.
If convicted, he faces up to 35 years in prison. On Monday evening, the court in Aliaga ruled to keep Brunson in jail.
Brunson addressed the court in fluent Turkish to deny the charges against him, at one point bursting into tears.
“I haven’t done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years,” he said.
He rejected the accusations of links to Gulen’s group, saying: “That would be an insult to my religion. I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement.”
He also denied aiding any PKK suspects and dismissed as a “lie” suggestions that he had preached in favour of Kurdish independence.
Brunson’s lawyer, Cem Halavurt, told FRANCE 24 the charges against his client were “completely unfounded”.
“We believe he will be acquitted in the end. We believe my client is innocent,” Halavurt added.
Caught up in a crackdown
Brunson, a graduate of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, moved to Turkey with his wife Norine in 1993. He arrived as a Protestant missionary in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. In 2010 he opened a Protestant church in the western city of Izmir, where the congregation numbered only around 25 parishioners.
Though Brunson had preached peacefully for more than two decades, animosity towards Protestants has been on the rise. A report by the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches said that 2017 saw a rise in hate crimes and physical attacks.
Against this backdrop – and alongside the Turkish government’s widespread purges since the failed coup of July 2016 – Brunson’s accusers had essentially marked him out as an enemy of the Turkish state.
Relations were already strained over US support for Syria's YPG, a Kurdish militia viewed by Ankara as a terrorist group, and Turkey's detention of almost a dozen other Americans who were caught up in the mass arrests following the failed coup against Erdogan.
Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and Senator Thom Tillis were in court for the trial’s opening. Brownback described the trial as a "religious freedom case”. "We want to see it resolved and we want to see him released," he said.
The pastor’s imprisonment has also mobilised Christian organisations, justice groups and those closest to him.
In November 2017, family attorney CeCe Heil, who works for the American Center for Law and Justice, told Congress that the pastor had lost 50 pounds in captivity and had often been held with 21 others in a cell designed for eight.
A political pawn
Brunson's daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told Congress her father was suffering from anxiety and depression.
“My dad is not an armed terrorist trying to overthrow any government,” said Furnari, who was raised in Turkey. She called the charges against him “absurd”.
Furnari also appeared at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018 to ask them to intervene on her father’s behalf.
“Having grown up in Turkey, it has been hard for me to understand the situation. My family loves and respects the Turkish people, and my father has been dedicated to serving them for over two decades.”
In September 2017, Erdogan suggested that Turkey might free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen. Washington dismissed the idea of using Brunson as a bargaining chip but has beenworking intensely to secure the pastor’s release.
Brunson's lawyer told The Associated Press that he expects the pastor's acquittal, based on a “weak indictment and insufficient evidence".
"There is no use in pushing this case on political grounds. There is a victim and we must first of all assure his right to freedom and security," said Halavurt.
The lawyer added that Brunson has said he would choose to remain in Turkey if he is acquitted.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)