The American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), a politically conservative, Christian-based social activism and corruption watchdog in Washington, has launched a campaign to free Andrew Brunson, an American pastor set to stand trial on April 16 in Turkey on charges of perpetrating crimes in the name of “terrorist” organizations and espionage, saying, “We cannot allow Turkey – our supposed NATO ally – to sentence a U.S. citizen to the rest of his life behind bars for being a Christian and living out his faith.”
The “Petition to Free American Pastor Andrew Brunson” seeks donations to advocate for the cleric’s release and had attracted 510,831 signatures at the time of writing.
A native of Black Mountain, North Carolina, Brunson has been in custody since October 2016 after he and his wife were detained on immigration violation charges. At the time, the Brunsons were running a small Christian church in İzmir and had lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Brunson’s wife was shortly released, but the cleric remained in custody and soon saw his charges upgraded to terrorism. Prosecutors suggested in court hearings that Brunson is held on suspicion of being a follower of Fethullah Gülen, who along with the movement he inspired has been accused by the Turkish government of masterminding a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in September had said: “They want a pastor [Andrew Brunson] from us, you have a pastor [Fethullah Gülen], too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him.”
In response to Erdoğan, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.”
The ACLJ states in its petition that Brunson has been charged with “Christianization” and adds: “A 62-page indictment – a diatribe against Christianity and Israel – claims that the Christian pastor living out his Christian faith, including through ‘humanitarian aid, education, and training,’ is terrorism. If convicted, he faces 35 years in a Turkish prison – essentially a life sentence for the 50-year-old American pastor.”
The organization also states that it has urged the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to intervene in the case.
In the indictment the prosecutor demands up to 15 years in prison for Brunson for perpetrating crimes in the name of the Gülen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) despite not being member of either, and up to 20 years for obtaining state secrets for political or military espionage.
US Senator from North Carolina Thom Tillis visited Brunson at İzmir’s Buca Prison in March and released a statement that said: “There should be no mistake that Pastor Brunson is the victim of false accusations, and we call upon the Turkish authorities to honestly and transparently review his indictment. Pastor Brunson is being used as a political pawn by some elements of the Turkish government. These elements seek to undercut the longstanding partnership between the United States and Turkey, in which our two nations have enjoyed close diplomatic, economic, and military ties. It is vital that our nations continue this partnership and continue to work together to pursue our common interests.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on March 13 issued a statement condemning the indictment charging Brunson.
“USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the 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. We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice,” said USCIRF Vice Chairs Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga.
Then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Brunson’s release during a February visit to Turkey.
“We continue to have serious concerns … about cases against US citizens who have been arrested under the state of emergency,” Tillerson said, referring to the emergency rule that has been in effect since July 2016.
“We call upon Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other US citizens who we believe are being unjustly detained.”
Brunson is due is to appear before an İzmir court on April 16, in a hearing to which a number of US senators have reportedly applied to attend.