An American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, has been jailed on false charges in Turkey since October, 2016. He is accused, in a 62-page indictment of espionage, overthrowing the Turkish Parliament and government, undermining the constitutional order of the state, and membership in an armed Islamic terrorist group, namely the "Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure", or the "FETÖ/PDY", which the Turkish government accuses of organizing the failed coup attempt in 2016.
Brunson was not charged until after being imprisoned for 17 months without any evidence at all, and with no access to his file. In late March, Turkish prosecutors finally filed official charges and called for a life sentence of 35 years. His trial is scheduled to begin on Monday, April 16.
Pastor Andrew Brunson, after he lost 50 lbs. in Turkish prison. (Image source: American Center for Law and Justice)
Brunson has lived in Turkey for 23 years with his wife and three children without incident. He was applying for permanent residency in Turkey before his arrest and served as pastor at the Protestant Resurrection Church in Izmir.
The 2017 Human Rights Violations Report by Turkey's Association of Protestant Churches states that the incarceration of Pastor Brunson and the 2016 failed coup attempt not only paved the way for a massive nationwide purge targeting thousands of people but negatively affected the Protestant community in the country.
The Association of Protestant Churches sent a letter to all the Protestant fellowships, saying that "it would be good and beneficial to not do evangelism or hand out brochures in public areas."
One of their most serious problems concerns the lack of their "legal entity and right to organize".
The Protestant community, as many other non-Muslim communities, is not recognized as a "legal entity" by the Turkish government. Hence, its followers do not have the right freely to establish and maintain places of worships.
"The legal entity problem is a problem for all religious groups as well as minority groups in Turkey," according to the report.
Apparently, even limited efforts are randomly thwarted by the Turkish government. Some foreign religious workers and church members were deported, denied entry into Turkey, refused residence permits, or denied entry visas.
The Turkish government is using Brunson's detention as a bargaining chip. In exchange for his freedom, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded the return to Turkey from the United States of self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, a political opponent, whom Erdogan claims was behind the failed coup against him in the summer of 2016. Erdoğan said in September 2017:
"America wants us to return a priest... You also have a priest. You should give him to us too. Then we will try and return the one here. But you then say, 'Don't mix them up.' What is that supposed to mean? That you have judiciary and we don't? In fact, the one here is tried. But the one over there [Gülen] is living in a palace in Pennsylvania. It would be much easier for you to return him to us."
The American Center for Law and Justice, which had been advocating Brunson's release, reported that "A large percentage of the 62-page indictment presented against him is comprised of rhetoric by unknown 'secret witnesses.'"
On March 2017, in a statement from his jail cell, Brunson said:
"Even though I have a long public track record as a church pastor, they falsely accuse me of being a member of an Islamist terrorist group. The Turkish government has produced no proof and has rebuffed numerous attempts by the American government to secure my return to the United States. In fact they are treating the U.S. government with contempt and paying no price for it...."
Turkey -- a NATO member holding an American political prisoner hostage -- has not even faced any consequences.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist born and raised in Turkey. She is presently based in Washington D.C.