WASHINGTON, D.C. — Freed North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson fell to one knee in the Oval Office and placed his hand on President Donald Trump’s shoulder in prayer before asking God to provide Trump “supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for him.”
Trump welcomed Brunson to the White House on Saturday to celebrate Brunson’s release from nearly two years of confinement in Turkey, which had sparked a diplomatic crisis between the countries, now under the watchful eye of the world for its human rights policies.
“It is an answer to a whole lotta prayers, and a whole lotta people have been praying for Pastor Brunson and working to get his release,” said Congressman Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) in an interview with WPTF radio in Raleigh.
Hudson sits on the international Helsinki Commission and added an amendment to the groups annual accord that said Turkey could not hold Brunson and others. Hudson also credited Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and President Donald Trump for the release.
“Trump’s administration used religious freedom law to bring significant economic pressure on Turkey,” he added.
Brunson returned to the U.S. aboard a military jet shortly before meeting the president. He was detained in October 2016, formally arrested that December and placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.
“From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours, that’s not bad,” Trump said.
Brunson appeared to be in good health and good spirits. When he asked Trump if he could pray for him, the president replied, “Well, I need it probably more than anyone else in this room, so that would be very nice, thank you.”
Brunson left his chair beside Trump, kneeled and placed a hand on the president’s shoulder. As Trump bowed his head, Brunson asked God to “give him supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for him. I ask that you give him wisdom in how to lead this country into righteousness.”
“I ask that you give him perseverance and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. I ask that you make him a great blessing to this country. Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him. May he be a great blessing to our country. In Jesus’ name, we bless you. Amen.”
“It was a beautiful moment,” Hudson said of the Oval Office prayer.
Brunson, originally from Black Mountain, N.C., had lived in Turkey with his family for more than two decades and led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of Kurdish militants and to aid a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of engineering the failed coup. He faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges against him.
Administration officials cast Brunson’s release as vindication of Trump’s hard-nosed negotiating stance, saying Turkey tried to set terms for Brunson’s release but that Trump was insistent on Brunson’s release without conditions. Trump maintained there was no deal for Brunson’s freedom.
“We do not pay ransom in this country,” Trump said.
Erdogan had insisted that his country’s courts are independent, though he previously had suggested a possible swap for Brunson. The U.S. had repeatedly called for Brunson’s release and, this year, sanctioned two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum imports citing in part Brunson’s plight.
Tillis visited Brunson in Turkey twice, including attending his spring trial, and worked legislation into the defense authorization bill that penalized Turkey by denying sale of military jets.
“When I first met with Pastor Brunson in a Turkish prison earlier this spring, he told me his greatest fear was that the American government would accept the indictment and forget about him. I told him we would never allow that to happen,” said Tillis in a statement after Brunson’s release.
“Americans from every corner of the country have prayed for his release, and leaders from both parties have worked together behind the scenes. Securing Pastor Brunson’s release was truly a bipartisan, all-hands-on-deck effort,” Tillis continued. “I’m grateful for the efforts of President Trump, the State Department, and my colleagues in the Senate. We pursued a number of diplomatic and policy channels that kept the pressure on.”
Trump said the U.S. greatly appreciated Brunson’s release and said the move “will lead to good, perhaps great, relations” between the U.S. and fellow NATO ally Turkey and said the White House would “take a look” at the sanctions. However, there is still skepticism.
“I still have a lot of concerns about a pattern of human rights abuses by Turkey, a pattern of belligerence towards NATO, a pattern of religious persecution all happening in Turkey right now,” said Hudson. “The regime in Turkey is trying to consolidate power at the expense of human rights to its people.”
Erdogan said on Twitter that he hoped the two countries will continue to cooperate “as it befits two allies.” Erdogan also called for joint efforts against terrorism, and he listed the ISIS group, Kurdish militants and the network of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom Turkey blames for a failed coup in 2016.
A Turkish court on Friday convicted Brunson of having links to terrorism and sentenced him to just over three years in prison, but released the 50-year-old evangelical pastor because he had already spent nearly two years in detention. An earlier charge of espionage was dropped.
Hours later, Brunson was flown out of Turkey, his home for more than two decades. He was taken to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for a medical checkup.
Darlene Superville and Zeke Miller of the Associated Press contributed to this report.