Just one prisoner, slightly built, came through a side door, escorted on either side by armed gendarmerie soldiers, walking him past rows and rows of empty seats. Dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, he glanced up at the impressive state-of-the-art courtroom, built to accommodate 650 people. Its walls up to the high ceiling were ringed with security cameras, overlooking dozens of microphoned desks positioned for teams of defence lawyers. Once a basketball court, the arena had been renovated into a gigantic courtroom 15 months earlier, near Turkey’s high-security Aliaga Sakran Prison for a particular purpose: to house large-scale criminal court hearings against the thousands of Turkish citizens accused of supporting a deadly coup attempt in July 2016 to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But on 16 April, US Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson was the lone defendant on trial before the Second Criminal Court of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, on the Aegean coast.
After 23 years of public Christian ministry in Turkey, the pastor of Izmir’s small Resurrection Church was about to stand trial, apparently inexplicably, for alleged collaboration with Turkey’s two worst enemies. The first, the FETO network of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, is accused by Ankara of masterminding the deadly but failed 2016 coup. The second, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has waged a decades-long armed insurgency against the Turkish government.
Brunson had first been put behind bars, without formal charges, on 7 October, 2016. Scores of headlines had appeared in the Turkish media, calling him everything from a “terrorist” priest to a CIA spy, but the legal file against him was sealed, even against his Turkish lawyer.
Only when his indictment was finally released, six weeks before his trial, had Brunson learned he was being charged formally with terrorism and espionage, calling for combined prison terms of 35 years.
As he entered the courtroom, the 50-year-old church leader could see only a mere scattering of observers, seated far up against the back wall.
In one section, a dozen US diplomats from Ankara accompanied two high-profile visitors from Washington, DC – US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis. The pastor had been told they planned to come, although their faces were too far away to recognise. Only later did he learn that no English interpreters had been made available to them, to be able to follow the 12 hours of sessions in Turkish.
In a corner farther away from Brunson, more than 25 mostly Turkish journalists were crowded into the media-allotted section.
“I reject all the accusations in this indictment. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My purpose here in Turkey is to tell people about Jesus and help disciple those who believe in Him. I have not been involved in any illegal activity.”
As his wife in the observers’ section spotted him, Brunson turned his head. Leaping to her feet she waved her arms silently, assuring him she was present. During the long months of his incarceration she was eventually allowed almost weekly visits to him in prison. But even then, they could rarely touch or even speak privately, looking at each other through a glass partition. Now Brunson could see a tiny handful of Turkish and expatriate Christians standing beside his wife, also waving.
Reluctantly, the pastor turned his back on them all, allowing his guards to lead him down a centre aisle to the front of the courtroom. He stopped before the elevated judicial bench, flanked on either side by gigantic LED display screens. The standard Turkish judicial panel of three judges and a state prosecutor soon entered to take their places up on the bench. Below, off to his far right, Brunson could see his lone lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, seated before a microphone at a desk piled with thick binders of files.
He sat and waited some minutes. It was shortly before 10am when the presiding judge opened the hearing. First the charges filed against him were read, punishable with a total of 35 years in prison if found guilty:
- Engaging in missionary* activities under the “cover” of humanitarian aid to Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Turkey
- Relations and ministry with Kurds “known” to have high connections within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO)
- Activities aimed at destabilising Turkey, carried out in support of the criminal FETO network
After a 45-minute reading of the rambling indictment, the judge told Brunson he had the right to respond in his own defence – with court translators at hand if he preferred to speak in English – or to remain silent.
For the next six hours, Brunson launched his personal defence in fluent Turkish, refuting one after another of the multiple accusations filed against him.
“I reject all the accusations in this indictment,” the pastor began. “I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My purpose here in Turkey is to tell people about Jesus and help disciple those who believe in Him. I have not been involved in any illegal activity.”
A full two-thirds of the indictment allegations were based on the verbal testimony of mostly anonymous witnesses recorded by the prosecution. Some of their claims Brunson dismissed as outright lies without a shred of evidence; but others he explained were based on serious religious misinformation or the suppositions of his secret Turkish accusers.
“I want the truth to come out,” he repeated several times during his defence. “I have never done anything against Turkey. I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
‘Collusion with Mormons’
A large section of the indictment testimony quoted a secret witness code-named ‘Dua’, who claimed that US citizens working as Mormon missionaries in Turkey were involved in regular interfaith dialogue with the FETO movement; he also accused the Mormons of supporting the PKK, by trying to win over Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish citizens to Mormon beliefs. The unnamed witness mistakenly asserted that all Christians believe that Kurds are the “elect 13th lost tribe of Israel” who will survive the battle of Armageddon, which he claimed was expected to be fought in Turkey and led by Christians.
The ‘Dua’ source listed a host of spying allegations against named Mormon members of the US military based in Turkey. “Though these people said they were involved in works of charity, I thought they were conducting missionary activities, as well as spying activities in the name of their country,” he claimed.
It took the pastor half an hour to explain to the court why he as an Evangelical Christian would have never considered cooperating with members of the Mormon Church, simply because they did not teach the Bible or follow Jesus Christ. “They have a different holy book, and follow their own prophet,” he said.
In addition, Brunson noted: “Ten of the accusations in this indictment are against them [the Mormons], not me!” He testified that he did not know a single one of the several dozen American Mormons named as suspects in ‘Dua’s testimony.
The anonymous witness provided no substantive evidence linking Brunson with the American Mormons living in Turkey. But because the Mormons’ missionary activities were putatively focused on gaining converts to their beliefs among ethnic Kurds, ‘Dua’ concluded they were all supporting the PKK, with the political motive of “dividing and conquering the Republic of Turkey”.
The pastor was overwhelmed by his emotions briefly when he returned to the courtroom from a mid-day break in the hearing, after being informed that he was to be placed into solitary confinement at the Aliaga Sakran Prison, close to the courthouse. He had been expected to be returned to his maximum-security cell in Izmir’s Buca Prison, where he had been held with one or two other cellmates in the last months of his incarceration.
When the judge offered to discontinue the hearing for a time, Brunson declined, explaining: “The problem is not Sakran Prison, it’s in my mind. I am staying there in a solitary cell. This is crushing my psychological state of mind. I want to be taken to a different cell.” It was later learned that on the day of the trial, the pastor had not been able to take the prescribed stress medications he had been taking for the past 10 months.
‘Covert Kurdish sympathies’
In relation to Brunson’s alleged support of the PKK, the presiding judge probed considerably into the reported activities of the pastor and his Izmir church members along the Syrian border, in the Turkish town of Suruç. Brunson explained he had gone there to minister among the Syrian refugees escaping from ISIS, to help meet their humanitarian needs and tell them about Jesus, which he repeated was his sole purpose for being in Turkey.
“We were always very open,” he said, explaining their activities among Syrian Kurds out along the border as well as in his church in Izmir. He said testimonies from the various secret witnesses had exaggerated the extent of their activities among Kurdish refugees. He said “there were only 10 to 12 people, sometimes as many as 20”, whom they had met with in Suruç.
“There was no reason for the Turkish government to be suspicious. Nothing was secret,” he said. They later stopped working along the border, he told the court, because after the refugee camps at Suruç were closed, there was no longer the pressing need for humanitarian aid.
Some witness testimonies in the indictment claimed that strong PKK sympathies were commonly expressed among the congregation in Brunson’s Izmir Resurrection Church. One anonymous source accused the church of displaying pro-PKK flags and slogans.
“Our church windows open right out onto the street,” Brunson responded. “The church is wide open during our Turkish services. Where are the photos to support this clearly false claim?” he asked the court.
A Turkish witness who testified openly at the hearing stated he had heard one of the Syrian Kurds involved in Brunson’s church curse against the Turks calling them “dogs”. But under the defence lawyer’s questioning, he said he had only heard this said in a private conversation, not during the actual church services or meetings.
“We did not practice any discrimination among those who came to the church. I have always supported Turkey’s territorial integrity,” Brunson said. “The violence of the PKK is contrary to my Christian faith.”
FETO allegations ‘insult to my faith’
The prosecution’s claims that Brunson was sympathetic towards Gülen’s Islamic movement hinged heavily on mobile-phone investigations submitted to the court, indicating that GSM signals of both the pastor and Bekir Baz and Murat Safa, senior members of FETO in the region, were “at the same place or at least very close to each other on 293 occasions”, pro-government media have reported.
Brunson was also accused of praising the prominent Muslim network and its interfaith activities in his sermons. He denied this.
The indictment also described a FETO plot, allegedly planned in the pastor’s presence, to take control of Turkey’s entire railroad system in order to quickly move weapons, materials and men during a takeover of the country.
The pastor called these allegations an insult to his beliefs. “I am a Christian, a Christian pastor. I do not belong to Islamic religious groups. Their aims are different to my aims,” he said.
“Why, after you had 16 months to prepare this indictment against Pastor Brunson, could you only come up with ‘suspicions’ from secret informers … but no tangible evidence?”
Ismail Cem Halavurt
After Brunson completed his defence in the late afternoon, three Turkish witnesses for the prosecution were called to testify to the court. One individual appeared in person on the witness stand, while two secret witnesses were situated in undisclosed locations elsewhere in the courthouse, speaking over a video system which concealed their faces and heavily distorted their voices.
One peculiar piece of evidence included in the indictment was a photograph of the popular Middle Eastern meat-rice-vegetable dish maqluba sent to Brunson’s mobile phone by his daughter, at university in the US. The indictment described the dish as “a Gülenist delicacy”. Shaking his head, Brunson told the judges he’d only learned the name of the food – and its alleged Gülen connection – from the indictment file.
After observing the 16 April hearing, seasoned Turkish journalist Nevşin Mengü commented on Sigma Turkey: “The indictment was mainly based on testimonies from secret witnesses. Most of the claims sounded like they were fresh out of a spy movie.”
CIA, FBI & NSA ‘members’ of US ‘missionary’ network
In fact, one anonymous witness claimed in the indictment: “In America there is an organisation to which all churches are connected. It is called CAMA, and they have control of all the church workers that go to other countries. Persons from a Mormon or Evangelical church that go to other countries, regardless of whether they apply to and are sent by their own church, are not allowed to serve in another country outside the USA without the permission of CAMA.” He continued: “In the USA, institutions such as the CIA, FBI and NSA are members of CAMA.”
Stressing that the CAMA members were excessively secretive, the secret witness claimed they all used a secret handshake to recognise each other, by curling their middle finger while shaking hands.
He then claimed: “Among the members of CAMA, the most prominent and leading group is the Mormon Church. The structure of this group is exactly the same as that of the armed terror organisation FETO/PDY that operates in our country.”
(Nothing in the indictment linked Brunson himself to this alleged CAMA organisation, nor made it clear what these initials stand for.)
While acknowledging that accusations like the one above seem laughable, Mengü noted: “However, neither the judges nor the state attorney [prosecutor] were laughing. These were simply charges taken seriously by the court members.”
After a short break in the hearing late in the evening, the presiding judge announced that the court would uphold a judicial order issued the previous week to keep the prisoner under arrest for another month, until a second hearing set for 7 May.
In a closing defence appeal to the court, Brunson’s lawyer Halavurt declared the charges against the pastor “totally unfounded,” stating there was no reason for his continued detention under trial, and that ultimately he would be acquitted.
Halavurt’s question to the state prosecution was left hanging in the courtroom: “Why, after you had 16 months to prepare this indictment against Pastor Brunson, could you only come up with ‘suspicions’ from secret informers … but no tangible evidence?”
In the silence, the prisoner bowed his head to be led away, as the remaining contingent of observers filed out quietly.
Three days later, Andrew Brunson was transferred from solitary confinement back to the Buca Prison, to wait for the second hearing on 7 May.
* With perhaps 100,000 Christians in a population of 80 million, 98%-Muslim Turkey officially tolerates and protects faiths other than Islam. But although missionary work is legal in secular Turkey, state institutions remain distrustful of missionaries, particularly as a potential threat to national unity.
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