Andrew Brunson has been in a Turkish prison for just over a year — one year and four days, to be exact. The circumstances of his captivity have led to a growing outcry from critics of the Turkish government and its increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But some groups here in the U.S. who have the ear of Ankara have remained silent on the issue of Brunson’s false imprisonment and on Erdogan’s recent proposal to hand over Brunson in exchange for a political enemy exiled in the States.
The Atlantic Council, the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — all of which have financial or cultural ties to Turkey and Erdogan — have remained silent on Brunson’s imprisonment.
And that’s unfortunate not just for the 49-year-old prisoner, but for Turkey’s global status, says Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It is sad to witness that Turkish-American organizations, for the most part, have been silent on this issue,” Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament, told The Daily Caller.
“The Turkish government’s imprisonment of Pastor Brunson on dubious charges and Erdogan’s recent offer of a swap deal have harmed not only U.S-Turkish relations, but also Turkey’s global image. It is, therefore, important for friends of Turkey to weigh in on this issue by discouraging Ankara from continuing with its hostage diplomacy.”
Brunson, a native of North Carolina who has ministered in Turkey for 23 years, has been in Turkish prisons since Oct. 7, 2016, on what are widely seen as false charges of aiding and abetting terrorist groups.
The case against Brunson is vague, though Turkish justice officials have alleged that he is a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric based in the U.S. who Erdogan has accused of masterminding last July’s failed coup attempt. Erdogan has unsuccessfully pressured the U.S. government to extradite Gulen, his former ally.
Brunson, who until his arrest, operated a small Christian church with his wife, Noreen, has also been accused of allowing Kurdish activists of using his church to speak out against the government.
Whatever the allegations against Brunson, his imprisonment appears to have a strategic purpose for Erdogan.
Last month, the Islamist leader said that he would release Brunson if the U.S. government would extradite Gulen.
“The U.S. wants a pastor from us. You have a pastor of your own; you give him to us, then we return pastor to you,” Erdogan told a group of police officers gathered at the presidential palace in Ankara. (RELATED: Erdogan Admits That He’s Using American Pastor As Bargaining Chip Against U.S.)
Erdogan has ignored pressure from the U.S. government to return Brunson. President Trump has reportedly broached the issue with Erdogan, and Sec. of State Rex Tillerson has publicly called on the Turkish government to release the pastor.
The Atlantic Council, a prestigious Washington, D.C. think tank that organizes events on behalf of the Turkish government and receives funding from companies linked to the Turkish government, has mostly avoided the Brunson case.
The only reference to Brunson associated with the Atlantic Council came from Naz Durakoglu, who as a senior fellow for the Atlantic Council mentioned the Brunson case in an April 5 report provided to the House Foreign Affairs Committee entitled “Turkey’s Democracy Under Challenge.” Durakoglu left the Atlantic Council in June and now works for New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Later that month, the Atlantic Council reportedly acceded to the Turkish government, which requested that Durakoglu and another critic of Erdogan’s regime be removed as participants at an annual energy summit held in Istanbul.
Reached for comment about Brunson and Erdogan’s demands for a prisoner swap, the Atlantic Council declined to discuss the issue.
“I’ve asked around and no one in the Council would like to comment on that,” Atlantic Council spokeswoman Nancy Messieh told TheDC.
Frederick Kempe, the president of the Atlantic Council, also did not respond to direct requests for comment.
Kempe was present at an event welcoming Erdogan to the U.S. back in May, when the Turkish leader’s bodyguards attacked a group of peaceful protesters outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C.
The Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), another non-profit group with close ties to the Turkish government, is also refusing to weigh in on Brunson’s imprisonment.
“We are not legal experts and it’s up to the Turkish justice system. We are sure both country’s representatives are talking to one another to resolve these matters,” Ali Cinar, the president of THO, told The Daily Caller.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism case, is another group with ties to Erdogan who has refused to speak out in support of Brunson.
Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director, has met frequently with Erdogan and voiced his support for the Turkish government. Last August, Awad visited Turkey after the failed coup attempt and called for support for Turkey’s democracy.
But as the NATO nation has steadily moved away from the democratic system, Awad and his group have abstained from criticizing Turkey or Erdogan.
“Sorry, we don’t talk to hate groups,” Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s spokesman, told The Daily Caller when contacted about Erdogan.
TASC, which hosted Erdogan during his visit to the U.S. last month, has also not commented publicly on Brunson’s imprisonment. Emails and phone calls placed to the organization were not returned.
Erdemir, the former member of Turkey’s parliament, says that members of the Turkish diaspora and allies of the NATO nation should not ignore the Erdogan regime’s use of Brunson as a geopolitical pawn.
“I believe that genuine patriotism requires Turkish diaspora to stand up for the rule of law and freedom of religion or belief in their country of origin, not turning a blind eye to egregious violations of fundamental rights and liberties,” he told TheDC.