US Senator James Lankford, following a Tuesday panel discussion on religious freedom and human rights in Turkey, tweeted that Turkey is no longer behaving like a US ally, citing the continued imprisonment of an American pastor on accusations of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order of the Turkish Republic, among other charges.
“I joined @USCIRF today to discuss #Turkey & their disrespect for #Human Rights. Turkey has unfortunately embraced oppressive policies & continue to unjustly imprison #AndewBrunson, They are no longer behaving like an American ally” Lankford tweeted out in reference to “TURKEY TODAY: Taking the Temperature of Religious Freedom and Human Rights,” hosted by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in conjunction with Lankford.
During the briefing panelists explored US-Turkish relations in a challenging environment, Turkey’s critical role in the region and recommendations to the US government to promote human rights and religious freedom in Turkey.
Turkey experienced an attempted coup in July 2016 in which 249 people died and thousands were injured. During an ongoing state of emergency declared soon after, tens of thousands of alleged coup supporters were arrested and thousands more were removed from positions in the Turkish military, judiciary and education system.
Human rights advocates and members of religious minority communities were accused of attempting to undermine the state, and many are still detained.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in particular has accused the faith-based Gülen movement of masterminding the putsch, an allegation strongly denied by Fethullah Gülen, the man who inspired the movement, and his followers.
Lankford, a US senator from Oklahoma, in a September statement denounced a suggestion by Erdoğan that US authorities extradite Turkish Islamic scholar Gülen in return for releasing American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been jailed in Turkey since October 2016.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, has been in custody since October after he and his wife were detained on immigration violation charges. At the time, the Brunsons were running a small Christian church in İzmir. They had lived in Turkey for 23 years.
He was subsequently jailed due to alleged links to the Gülen movement, charged with acquiring secret political and military information and attempting to destroy the constitutional order and overthrow the Turkish Parliament.
Lankford described Erdoğan’s suggestion as a confession that Turkey is holding Brunson hostage in hopes that the US hands over Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
“President Erdogan’s suggestion that the US should make a hostage-style prisoner swap for an innocent American imprisoned in Turkey is appalling and will not be taken seriously. Turkey has long been a US ally, but has chosen to complicate and weaken its relationship with the US and other free nations of the world through its increasingly autocratic policies. The US will not stand idly by as these oppressive tactics target American citizens. Turkish officials responsible for the prolonged, unjust imprisonment of Dr. Andrew Brunson, or any American, should be denied the privilege of entry in the US,” the statement said.
Lankford had also visited Turkey in December to meet with Justice Ministry officials to advocate for the release of Brunson.
In the USCIRF 2017 Annual Report, Turkey was listed as a Tier 2 country of concern, meaning “nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard.”