US Protestant church leader Andrew Brunson, who has lived and worked in Turkey for 23 years, was today found guilty on the first day of his trial in a court in Izmir, the city where he had been leading the Resurrection Church. His sentencing will likely come at his next hearing, scheduled for May 7th.
The verdict came late into the evening in Izmir, after the recently appointed US Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, had left the hearing; he had flown from the US to attend in person, as had another US Senator.
The pastor, who gained his Theology Ph. D. from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in 2001, once or twice broke down in the courtroom.
Brunson’s wife Norine, who was also present in the court, was too upset to speak to the media. Other supporters were shocked at the swiftness of the judgement, which they said appeared to be based on a complete lack of credible evidence. They are convinced Brunson is caught up as a political hostage after a failed coup against the government of Turkish President Erdogan in summer 2016, blamed on a Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, now in the US.
Revd. Brunson now faces 35 years in prison on today’s conviction of links with both of Turkey’s most prominent terrorist organisations: the FETO network of Gülen, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), leading a 35-year armed separatist struggle against the Turkish state.
Not quite three months after the coup, Pastor Brunson was detained on 7 October 2016 during an investigation into his residency visa status. Initially told he would be deported within 15 days as a “threat to national security,” he was later accused by an anonymous witness of being linked with the Gülen movement and conducting “missionary activities.”
Last September, President Erdogan had suggested publicly to the US to swap “your pastor” [Brunson] in exchange for Turkey’s demanded US extradition of “our cleric” [Gülen] to Turkey. But the US judiciary contends that despite 80 boxes of evidence submitted against Gülen, who was once a close Erdogan ally, the files lack the hard, credible evidence required under US laws to extradite a legal permanent resident of the US back to Turkey.
Meanwhile, pastor Brunson has remained in Turkish detention centres and prisons for the past one and a half years. He’s now been taken to prison, where it’s thought he might have to face solitary confinement.
A Wall Street Journal report on 4 April stated that the Trump administration had been “stepping up efforts” to secure Brunson’s release, “working to remove irritants to relations between Ankara and Washington before the pastor’s first court hearing.”
It’s understood Ambassador Brownback will be in the Turkish capital Ankara tomorrow for meetings about the unexpectedly rapid conviction of the US citizen.
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