The State Department poured cold water on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to swap an American pastor jailed in his country for Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the U.S.
“I can’t imagine that we would go down that road,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said during a press briefing on Thursday.
Nauert was responding to a question about Erdogan’s surprise admission earlier in the day that his government would release Pastor Andrew Brunson from jail if the U.S. extradited Gulen, his main political foe. (RELATED: Erdogan Admits Using Jailed American Pastor As Bargaining Chip Against U.S.)
“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 at the presidential palace in Ankara on Thursday.
Erdogan accuses Gulen, his former ally, of masterminding last July’s failed coup attempt. He has pleaded with Presidents Trump and Obama to extradite Gulen, who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania. The U.S. government has so far rebuffed the requests.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, has been in jail on bogus terrorism charges since Oct. 7. He was initially arrested along with his wife, though she has since been released. Turkish authorities have not laid out a case against Brunson, who has been accused in Turkish media of being a follower of Gulen, a sympathizer of Kurdish radicals, and a CIA operative.
Gulen’s network of followers and the Kurdish separatist group PKK are both considered terrorist groups in Turkey.
“We continue to advocate for his release. He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we’d like to see him brought home,” Nauert said Thursday.
Nauert said that U.S. diplomats have stayed in touch with Brunson, who operated a small Christian church in the coastal city of Izmir. She revealed that Brunson was last visited on Sept. 18.
“This is a very serious issue for us trying to get Pastor Brunson to home. This is a subject that President Trump had raised with President Erdogan not too terribly too long ago,” said Nauert.
Trump and Sec. of State Rex Tillerson have both pressed Erdogan to release Brunson. Erdogan brought up the issue with Trump during a meeting last week. Erdogan was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
Nauert said she had no updates to offer on the extradition request for Gulen. Despite Erdogan’s lobbying of his American counterparts, Trump and Obama, the process of removing the cleric would go through the federal court system. The Justice Department, which would handle any extradition move, has refused to comment on Gulen.