A Christian social activist group has been in touch with the Donald Trump transition team in hopes of freeing an American pastor who has been held in a Turkish prison for three months on bogus terrorism charges, The Daily Caller is told.
“We’ve reached out, and they’re obviously aware,” Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, says of the case of Andrew Brunson, a native of North Carolina who has served as a missionary in Turkey for 23 years.
“We haven’t seen the engagement from our highest level officials. They’re on their way out, and it doesn’t seem like necessarily it’s on their priority list,” Sekulow added of the outgoing Obama administration.
“It’s going to take more action from the Trump administration.”
Brunson’s saga started on Oct. 7, when he and his wife, Norine, were summoned to court in Izmir, a coastal city where they reside and preach.
The couple, who has raised three children in Turkey, expected to be informed that day that they were being granted permanent resident status. Instead, the Brunsons were detained and held for deportation.
But that wasn’t the worst of it for the pastor, who heads a small Protestant flock at Izmir Resurrection Church. While Norine was ultimately released from detention, Andrew was transferred from a detention center to Izmir’s 4 Nolu T Tipi prison in early December. He was held there on suspicion of providing support to a terrorist group.
His initial appeal of the charges was denied by a Turkish court last week.
Turkish authorities have provided no evidence to Brunson’s legal team laying out the charges against him. His family and the U.S. embassy in Ankara have also been kept in the dark about the allegations.
Sekulow says that the Turkish government is operating more in the manner of a totalitarian regime than a NATO ally.
“We expect that from plenty of other countries, but with Turkey, that’s a next level of low when you’re talking about a NATO ally,” Sekulow tells TheDC.
“It should not be like dealing with Iran or North Korea or Sudan.”
Sekulow says that Turkey’s switch from holding Brunson for deportation to casting him as a terrorist could indicate that they view him as a bargaining chip.
“I think that over time these officials going up the chain realized ‘maybe we can get something out of this,'” Sekulow said.
In a court hearing last month, Brunson was told that an anonymous tipster fingered him as a “secret informant” for an armed terrorist organization. Court papers also accused him of being a follower of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric who is an archenemy of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan has accused Gulen of masterminding July’s failed coup attempt against the Turkish government and of other attempts to undermine his regime. The Islamist leader has pleaded with the U.S. government, including President Obama, to extradite the 77-year-old imam.
The increasingly authoritarian Erdogan and members of his AKP party have also pushed in a more Islamist and anti-U.S. direction in the wake of the failed coup.
That has led to a purge of suspected Gulenists from Turkish media outlets, police forces, the military and the education system. More than 41,000 Turkish citizens have been detained in recent months and accused of being members of what the Turkish government has labeled the Gulen Terrorist Organization, or FETO. Erdogan’s regime has also targeted supporters of opposing political parties, and, increasingly, Christians.
In addition to the Brunson case, Turkish authorities recently blocked Ryan Keating, another American pastor, from entering the country because he was deemed a national security threat. Erdogan’s government also banned a Protestant church in Antioch from holding Bible study “without a permit.”
While Andrew Brunson waits in desperate hope of reprieve, Norine Brunson is limited to posting updates of his status at the Izmir prison and to requested prayers from friends and supporters.
In one Facebook post from late last month, she responded to news reports that Brunson was being held in prison with ISIS fighters. She clarified that he was not confined with violent terrorists. Instead, “he is in a room with 11 Muslims who are very devout so prayers are always going on in the small room, but these are not violent people and he is not in danger from them.”
She also said that she met with Brunson for the first time face-to-face last week.
“He was very down and discouraged. He had been almost completely cut off,” she wrote, noting that he celebrated his 49th birthday in prison earlier this week.