An American pastor facing up to 35 years in prison on terrorism and espionage charges appeared in a Turkish court Monday in the opening of a trial that has become a centerpiece in the increasingly fractured relationship between the U.S. and Turkey.
Andrew Brunson, 50, a Presbyterian minister who lived in Turkey for 23 years and ran a small church in the southwestern city of Izmir, has been in custody since October 2016.
“I want the whole truth to be revealed,” Brunson told the court, speaking in Turkish. “I reject the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.”
Prosecutors presented a lengthy indictment alleging that Brunson had been using missionary activities as a cover to work with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and with the organization of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who Turkey says orchestrated a 2016 coup attempt.
There are no obvious links between Gulen and the PKK, but the Turkish government regards both as enemies.
My dad is a loving, caring, Christian pastor. He never worked on behalf of any terror organization.
Most of the indictment, which has been heavily redacted, is based on the testimony of two secret witnesses who say Brunson was helping PKK members convert to Christianity so they could obtain asylum in Western countries, that he was a part of Gulen’s network, and that he was working with U.S. military and intelligence personnel in a plot to overthrow the Turkish government.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey,” Brunson said. “I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out.” He rejected the accusation that he was involved in Gulen’s movement, which is Islamic.
“That would be an insult to my religion. I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement,” Brunson said.
The 556 days he has spent in a maximum security prison, Brunson said, has left his “psychology broken.”
Brunson and his wife, Norine, were detained in October 2016, after being summoned to a police station to discuss their application to renew a residency permit. They were told they would be deported because they were “involved in activities that pose a national security threat to Turkey.”
Turkey has been under a state of emergency since July 2016, giving police and prosecutors expanded rights to detain without charge, and deport foreign nationals. More than 50,000 Turkish nationals have been imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, and 150,000 purged from public sector jobs.
Norine Brunson was released, but Andrew Brunson was later moved to a maximum security prison near Izmir. On March 19, nearly 18 months since he was first detained, prosecutors presented a formal indictment of Brunson. He faces up to 15 years in prison on a charge of “committing crimes on behalf of a terror organization despite not being a member of the organization,” and 20 years on a charge of “disclosing state information that must remain confidential for political or military espionage purposes.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, from Brunson’s home state of North Carolina, attended the hearing in Izmir, as did Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
“The United States cares deeply about our relationship with Turkey,” Brownback told reporters. “That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated.”
President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have repeatedly brought up Brunson’s case with their Turkish counterparts over the last year. On his first visit to Turkey in March 2017, Tillerson met with Norine Brunson. But Brunson’s fate has become entangled with an unraveling relationship between the two NATO allies.
Turkey has asked the United States to extradite Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania for nearly two decades, so that he can face charges of directing the 2016 coup attempt. The Department of Justice has said U.S. courts need to first approve the extradition, and Ankara has failed to so far to provide compelling evidence the aging cleric was involved and that he would receive a fair trial in Turkey if he was sent there. In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Gulen could be exchanged for Brunson.
“‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gulen] to us,” Erdogan said. “Then we will try [Brunson] and give him to you.”
Turkey has increasingly complained that the U.S. supports Kurdish groups in Syria that it says have ties to the PKK. Erdogan and other top officials have said that Turkish forces in northern Syria could be sent to fight the Kurdish groups, even if that means risking combat with the American troops stationed alongside them.
“Everyone in the family is holding their breath,” said Jacqueline Furnari, Brunson’s daughter, who was raised in Turkey but moved back to the U.S. several years ago. “Of course I have hope; I want to get a call saying my father is coming home.”
She called the charges against him “absolutely absurd,” adding: “They want to put him in prison for 35 years on charges of terror and espionage, and he is already 50 years old, so that means he would spend the rest of his life in jail. My dad is a loving, caring, Christian pastor. He never worked on behalf of any terror organization.”
The 62-page indictment against Brunson includes evidence obtained from his cellphone as well as a computer disc that was in his possession when he was detained, but most of it is composed of testimony by two secret witnesses — code named Prayer and Fire — who explain how the pastor allegedly led what they claimed was a vast network of ex-U.S. military and CIA members working in Turkey.
Many of them, one witness testifies, are from the Church of Latter-day Saints — the Mormon Church, which is described as “very influential in the U.S. armed forces, the CIA and the NSA. Close to 40% of American soldiers stationed in foreign countries are members of this church.”
Investigators allege that a Brunson-led network held regular meetings at a hotel in Izmir with military officers stationed at Incirlik Air Base. The indictment also alleges that Brunson believed Kurds were a Biblical “lost tribe,” and he sought to convert them to Christianity, making trips with other foreign missionaries not only to the Turkey-Syria border, but also into Kobani, Syria.
“He engages in missionary activities under the cover of providing humanitarian aid to asylum seekers,” the indictment reads. Part of the evidence for this is the allegation that Brunson translated the Bible into Kurdish.
“The majority is really hearsay by a secret witness,” said Cece Heil, executive counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Washington-based group that is funding and assisting Brunson’s legal representation. “Most of it is allegations against specific members of the LDS church, none of which Brunson knows…. All are false.”
In August, Furnari said, she was able to visit her father in prison, a rare one-hour meeting in which they were allowed to hug.
“He was thinner than I had ever known him to be,” Furnari said. “His hair had changed to gray, he looked tired and broken and desperate, and it was heartbreaking to see my dad like that.”
“Turkey to me was home, it is all that I have known, my family, my friends, school. I loved the culture, the food, everything about it, and I miss it,” said Furnari, who has delayed her wedding in the U.S. in hopes her father can attend it. “My parents never had any intention of leaving Turkey. ... They said we were here because God called us here, and they would leave when God wanted them to.”
Farooq is a special correspondent.