U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency/DHA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. TURKEY OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN TURKEY.
Andrew Brunson is under house arrest after being released from prison in Izmir, Turkey, in July © Reuters

A middle-aged American pastor accused of collaborating with a Muslim sect to overthrow the Turkish government has become the unlikely focus of a dispute with the US that has helped plunge Turkey into a currency crisis.

Andrew Brunson, 50, who ministered to a tiny flock of Turkish Protestants for more than two decades, faces up to 35 years in prison on espionage and terrorism charges. He is accused of participating in a bungled military coup in 2016 and consorting with Kurdish militants. He has called the charges “slander”.

US president Donald Trump and vice-president Mike Pence, who shares Mr Brunson’s evangelical faith, have voiced outrage at the pastor’s fate.

The US imposed sanctions on two Turkish cabinet ministers this month after the Trump administration’s expectations that Mr Brunson was about to be freed were dashed; he was instead moved from pre-trial detention to house arrest.

In turn, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has fumed that Washington is stabbing Turkey in the back. Foreign investors, already worried about rising inflation and an indebted private sector, have driven the lira to record lows.

Mr Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, said he had applied on Tuesday to lift the legal order that requires the pastor to remain in Turkey, arguing that the war of words between the Turkish and US presidents made a fair hearing impossible.

Before he wound up at the centre of a diplomatic crisis, Mr Brunson, who is from North Carolina, ran the small Church of the Resurrection in the western city of Izmir, where he raised his three children.

In October 2016, he and his wife Norine were summoned to a police station for what they assumed was a routine extension of their residence permit. They were promptly arrested and threatened with deportation for “threatening national security”.

Mrs Brunson was released two weeks later, but her husband remained behind bars without access to a lawyer for two months. A year and a half after he was detained, prosecutors indicted him.

The case largely relies on anonymous witnesses and secret documents alleging that Mr Brunson “Christianized” Kurds to foment separatism and helped lay the groundwork for a failed coup in 2016, which Turkey says was masterminded by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and leads a worldwide movement that critics characterise as a sect or a cult.

The indictment says Mr Brunson was working on a plan with Mr Gulen’s followers and armed Kurdish militants to “stir unrest in the country, usher in chaos and divide it and to this aim was collecting information, in order to especially direct citizens of certain ethnic roots”.

The document adds: “The Turkish state respects all religious beliefs . . . but it cannot permit activities that exploit the religious beliefs of individuals, regardless of their faith.”

In his petition to the court, a copy of which has been seen by the Financial Times, Mr Halavurt said: “The indictment, based only on the false statements of witnesses, was born dead. It should not be possible to limit my client’s freedom with this indictment and this evidence.”

A friend of Mr Brunson’s of more than two decades, who declined to be named, said: “The prosecutor’s file . . . has ridiculous things. They’re getting everything mixed up. They say he’s working with Mormons; he’s not a Mormon. I know Andrew and he’s about as political as a doorjamb.”

The friend said letters that Mr Brunson had written, which were peppered with evangelical rhetoric — such as “God is shaking the earth” — were cited as proof of his plotting.

Washington has demanded that Turkey free the pastor before it will discuss other disputes that range from delays on US arms sales to an exemption for Turkey on new US sanctions on Iran.

According to Turkish media reports, the Trump administration has also called for the release of a dozen or so other US citizens and two Turkish consular workers before other talks can begin.

Mr Erdogan has previously suggested swapping Mr Brunson for Mr Gulen. He has also sought the return of a Turkish banking executive jailed in New York this year over the role of Halkbank, a state-controlled lender, in helping Iran skirt sanctions.

Mr Erdogan says he will not back down, saying the US stands to lose a strategic partner in Turkey.

“He has lost hope, wondering why Turkey, a Nato ally and a country he loves and has served for over two decades, has been able to hold him hostage, an innocent United States citizen, for nearly two years,” Mr Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told a state department religious freedom conference last month before the pastor was moved to house arrest.

Her parents missed Ms Furnari’s wedding and college graduation last year. Mr Brunson has dropped 50 pounds in weight and suffered from depression and anxiety while being held in “inhumane conditions” in an overcrowded prison ward, she said.

Turkey may still be searching for a face-saving way to free Mr Brunson. “Should new information or a document emerge, there is no obstacle to seeing Mr Brunson in the air” on a plane, Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper with close ties to the government, wrote on Tuesday. “A report saying his lengthy detention has distressed him psychologically may be enough.”

The Church of Resurrection still convenes without its pastor, with 30 or so worshippers gathering to sing and pray in a converted house in the Alsancak district of Izmir.

Mr Brunson’s plight has appalled US evangelicals, an important voter base for Mr Trump’s Republican party. “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!” the US president said in a tweet last month.

The White House’s singular focus on Mr Brunson has dismayed some Americans whose family members were ensnared in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown.

One of them is Serkan Golge, a 38-year-old Nasa physicist who was sentenced to seven years in prison for terrorism in February. Evidence against him included a savings account at a Gulen-affiliated bank and the discovery in his home of a single dollar bill, which Turkish authorities sometimes say is a sign of Gulenist conspiracy.

Before that, Mr Golge worked on a Nasa project to send the first manned mission to Mars. “I at least expect Trump to mention the other Americans in his tweets,” said Mr Golge’s wife, Kubra. “I feel like a step-citizen. It’s as if no one cares because we are Muslim.”

Get alerts on Turkish politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article