NC pastor goes on trial in Turkey, faces 35 years in prison

Pastor Andrew Brunson of Montreat was sent back to prison Monday and his trial continued until May 7. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) traveled to Turkey with a U.S. delegation attending the trial.

A high-security prison where pastor Andrew Brunson is being held is pictured in Izmir, Turkey April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sadi Osman Temizel

ALIAGA, Turkey — A North Carolina pastor denied allegations of links to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey as he went on trial on Monday in a case that has compounded strains in U.S.-Turkish relations.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from Christ Community Church in Montreat, N.C., who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that the Turkish government holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan. He faces up to 35 years in prison.

“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out,” Brunson told the court in the western Turkish town of Aliaga, north of the Aegean city of Izmir.

Brunson, 48, has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city. He was arrested on Oct. 7, 2016, but not formally charged until nearly a year after his incarceration. Last year, a 62-page indictment was filed against Brunson, and it reportedly reads more like a diatribe against Christianity — including an attack on Israel. The prosecution cited allegations from “secret witnesses” as evidence.

“I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities,” said Brunson, wearing a white shirt and black suit and making his defense in Turkish.

Brunson’s wife was in the courtroom, as were North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and the U.S. envoy for religious freedom, Sam Brownback. Tillis has visited Brunson in prison previously, reporting back that the pastor has lost 50 pounds while in prison and has limited human contact.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) traveled to Turkey this week for the trial of Montreat Pastor Andrew Brunson, arrested in 2016 on charges of helping a coup.

“There should be no mistake that Pastor Brunson is the victim of false accusations,” Tillis said. “Pastor Brunson is being used as a political pawn by some elements of the Turkish government. These elements seek to undercut the longstanding partnership between the United States and Turkey, in which our two nations have enjoyed close diplomatic, economic and military ties.”

President DOnald Trump tweeted support fro Brunson on Tuesday night.

Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” Trump tweeted.

“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases roiling U.S.-Turkish relations. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Washington, including Tillis, fellow N.C. Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Richard Hudson, has called for Brunson’s release while Erdogan suggested last year a swap for U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who currently lives in Pennsylvania and whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.

Gulen denies any association with the coup bid. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with the coup bid.

Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Brunson, spoke to Congress and the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2017, urging U.N. action against Turkey for her father’s imprisonment.

“Having grown up in Turkey, it has been hard for me to understand the situation,” she said. “My family loves and respects the Turkish people, and my father has been dedicated to serving them for over two decades,” she said. “I know the allegations against my father are absurd.”

Brunson’s lawyer said the pastor, detained 18 months ago, was in custody because of his religious beliefs. Turkey is a majority Muslim country though constitutionally secular.

“There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith,” Ismail Cem Halavurt told Reuters on the eve of the trial. “We want Brunson to be freed immediately.”