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Pence Warns Turkey, U.S. Will Impose Sanctions Unless Pastor Brunson Is Released

REUTES/Adriano Machado

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter

Vice President Mike Pence delivered a warning to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saying the U.S. will impose sanctions until Pastor Andrew Brunson is released.

Pence delivered the warning on behalf of President Donald Trump Thursday at the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pence addressed violations of religious freedom in various nations, from the persecution of Catholics in Nicaragua to the targeting of Yazidis by the Islamic State, affirming the U.S.’ commitment to fighting for universal religious freedom. Pence asserted that one victim of religious persecution who could not be present at the ministerial should also be honored — Andrew Brunson. (RELATED: American Pastor Ordered To Be Released From Turkish Prison)

“He is still not free. And to President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America — release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences,” Pence said.

“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and sending home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”

Trump reiterated the warning over Twitter.

Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina who has been ministering in Turkey for over 20 years, has been imprisoned in Turkey since October 2016. Turkish authorities arrested him shortly after the failed coup in July 2016, initially without charges. They later charged him with espionage and accused him of membership in and aiding of armed Islamic terrorist groups.

Turkish authorities refused to release Brunson from prison in three successive hearings, but released him from prison into house arrest Wednesday. Pence acknowledged the development, but demanded Brunson’s full freedom.

“Yesterday, Turkey released pastor Brunson from prison only to place him under house arrest. This is a welcome first step, but it is not good enough,” he said at the ministerial. “I spoke to pastor Brunson and his wife Maureen yesterday. I know that his faith will sustain him, but it shouldn’t have to. Pastor Andrew Brunson deserves to be free.”

“I promise you, as I told your father yesterday, President Trump and I will continue to fight to secure your father’s full release until he is restored to your family and returns to the United States of America to believers across America,” Pence said to Brunson’s family, before delivering Trump’s warning to Erdogan.

Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued the indictment against Brunson, which alleges not only that he committed espionage against Turkey but also aided the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Gülen’s followers, has no basis in any credible evidence or witness accounts. Prosecution has relied on the testimony of three secret witnesses and, according to Erdemir, a convicted murderer. Trump also ridiculed the allegation that Brunson was a spy, saying in a tweet “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is.”

Brunson has maintained his innocence throughout his ordeal and argued that it is unreasonable to assert that he, as a Christian pastor, would aid an Islamist movement or engage in military espionage.

Erdemir asserted that Erdogan is simply using Brunson as a political pawn.

“The Turkish government has no intentions of providing Pastor Brunson a fair trial,” Erdemir said in 2017.

“Ankara sees Brunson as a hostage that they can use as leverage in their relations with the United States,” he added.

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