A Matter of Evidence
American citizen and clergyman Andrew Brunson was arrested by Turkish officials, who accused him of links with and membership in an armed terrorist organization. Brunson and his family were not in Turkey on holiday. Rather, they have been legal residents of the country for more than 20 years, helping shepherd a small Protestant congregation in the Aegean coastal town of Izmir. Recently, they had taken on the additional responsibility of working with the Syrian refugee population.
The October 2016 arrest was not Pastor Brunson’s first experience with the risks that go with sharing Christianity in Turkey. An attempt was made on his life several years earlier. “He was so committed to Turkey, he didn’t leave; and he continued to serve,” recalls Aykan Erdemir, former member of the Turkish parliament and current policy expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Erdemir was the keynote speaker at the 2018 Religious Liberty Dinner, which Liberty co-sponsors.
Brunson’s 2016 detainment began a series of events that continue to unfold, and can be described only as tragic. After his initial detention he was not allowed access to an attorney or visits with U.S. officials for more than two months. His legal defenders were not provided a copy of the indictment against him until late March 2017, giving them less than a month to review the evidence against him and prepare a defense before his initial court date.
Family, friends, colleagues, church leaders, human rights organizations, U.S. state and federal politicians, and dozens of international parliamentarians all maintain that the clergyman has no connections to, let alone membership in, any terrorist organizations. The 62-page indictment against Pastor Brunson provides no concrete evidence to contradict his assertion of innocence, or these numerous affirmations. In press coverage the document is often referred to as “nonsensical.” Erdemir referred to it as “a collection of crazy conspiracy theories.” It would be comical, but for the threat of 35 years in prison.
At Pastor Brunson’s second court appearance in May 2018, things appeared to go from bad to worse. As in the first court date, key witnesses testified anonymously, via video linkage, their faces blurred and voices altered. One witness, who testified openly, was a convicted murderer on parole violation. Brunson’s own attorney came to court prepared with 10 defense witnesses, but all were rejected by the judge, as unreliable, and suspected terrorists themselves because of their association with Pastor Brunson.
Brunson told the court, “My service, that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus, but these claims are shameful and disgusting.”
After 10 hours of one-sided testimony, the judge adjourned the case until July 18.
“I would argue that since the aborted coup [in July 2016], under the state of emergency, Turkey’s legal system has collapsed completely,” says Erdemir. “The average Turkish citizen, and this pertains to Pastor Brunson’s case as well, doesn’t have attorney-client privilege. When suspects meet with their attorneys, their conversation can be recorded, attorney notes can be copied. People do not have access to their indictments for many months, sometimes more thana year or even two. Individuals can be held in pretrial detention for up to seven years. The legal system has failed across the board. But I would argue that when it comes to Christians, it’s even more callous. It’s even more brutal.”
Unfortunately, Andrew Brunson’s case is not isolated. His arrest and indictment are just part of what Erdemir refers to as the Turkish government’s campaign of “hostage diplomacy,” which he describes as a well-coordinated effort to use Western nationals, particularly Protestant Christians, as bargaining chips to extract concessions in bilateral relations. Although Erdimir admits it is difficult to tally the number of victims accurately because of privacy laws, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies released a report in May 2018 detailing 56 known cases of Western nationals who have been detained by the Turkish government since the 2016 coup. Nine of those persons remain in prison today.
“I think the issue is not just the wrongful issue of Pastor Brunson, but since the abortive coup we have seen numerous cases of the targeting of especially Protestant clergy and volunteers,” says Erdemir. “In the immediate aftermath of the coup, I wrote a couple of policy briefs warning about the hate speech targeting of Christians, scapegoating of Christians, incitement against Christians. There was really a very coordinated attempt by the Turkish government to scapegoat religious minorities, and as you know, it is always effective to deflect responsibility and put the blame on vulnerable groups.”
Erdemir continues: “We have seen numerous cases of Western nationals who have been denied entry to the U.S., who were not able to renew their residence permits or work permits or visas. We have seen numerous cases of harassment, and we have seen numerous cases of attacks on churches and Christians themselves. I’ve seen many try to downplay what the government says as merely campaign rhetoric, but as a former lawmaker I know that government incitement is extremely effective. As we’re seeing now, such rhetoric leads to real-life consequences for vulnerable communities, especially religious minorities. My philosophy is:If there’s incitement, take it seriously.”
What’s Next for Pastor Brunson
In June of this year the U.S. Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included an amendment that would delay the planned sale of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey because of its detention of Pastor Brunson. The amendment additionally called for the Defense Department to devise a plan to end any Turkish involvement in the F-35 program. The bill declared that “Congress will not tolerate any foreign government’s efforts to use United States citizens for political leverage.”
Still, at the time this article was written, the NDAA was several steps from becoming law, and the U.S. House version of the bill, which passed in May, merely stipulated that no jet sales could be made until the Defense Department reported to Congress on the state of U.S.-Turkey relations. The two versions of the law must be reconciled before a compromise bill can come up for a vote in both the House and Senate, after which it would still need final approval by President Trump.
Pastor Brunson’s third courtroom appearance was scheduled for July 18. In the interim, on June 24, President Erdogan was reelected, and constitutional changes were implemented that not only shifted the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system, but granted the Turkish leader unprecedented executive powers. With his new executive powers, he will have the ability to rule by decree, intervene in the country’s legal system, and run for a third term should parliament call snap elections in his final term.
When Andrew Brunson decided to follow in the footsteps of the apostle Paul by embarking on a life of mission in Turkey, I wonder if he considered how closely his ministerial journey might resemble that of the New Testament writer.