An American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for nearly a year on what his supporters say are false charges related to terrorism now faces new charges of espionage, in a widening case that has Christians demanding tough action from the Trump administration.
Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian pastor living in Turkey since 1993, faces four new charges including espionage, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
This is the latest sign that the tiny Christian minority in Turkey – which is 99 percent Muslim – now lives in a climate of growing uncertainty and fear. It comes on the heels of an announcement just two months ago that the Turkish government had seized ownership of 50 churches nationwide.
Turkey, once held up as an example of moderate Islam friendly to Western values, has been sliding backward in recent years. The latest crackdowns on Christianity signal an acceleration of its return to Islamic Sharia law under the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The last time Turkey was ruled by Sharia, under the Ottoman Empire, it slaughtered more than 1.5 million Christians of Greek, Armenian and Syrian descent.
Pastor Bronson led a church in the city of Izmir. He has been detained since last October but has now been accused of espionage and attempting to overthrow the Turkish government, charges that could bring life in prison and possibly even the death penalty if he is convicted. The pastor is a U.S. citizen from North Carolina but has lived in Turkey since 1993.
By refusing to release Brunson and now tacking on espionage charges, the Turkish government led by Erdogan appears to be sending a message to both its own people and the outside world that Turkey is indeed now an Islamic state and will not tolerate Christian evangelizing, say legal experts and fellow missionaries in the United States. The announcement of the new charges came amid an ongoing crackdown on Christian activity, all of which followed the attempted coup of July 2016.
Barbabas Aid, which aides persecuted Christians worldwide, reported as early as November 2016 “a climate of growing instability and persecution of Christians in Turkey.”
Brunson lived and ministered in the modern-day town of Izmir, which was once the biblical city of Smyrna.
Christian author/filmmaker Joel Richardson traveled to Turkey in 2015 to capture documentary footage of Erdogan’s transformation of Turkey from a Western-friendly nation in the mold of Ataturk into an Islamic state.
He urges all Christians to contact the Trump administration and demand action.
“When Said Abedini was imprisoned in Iran, the outcry from American Christians calling upon the Obama administration to demand his release was quite loud and clear,” Richardson told WND.
“Here we have a nation, Turkey, that is alleged to be an ally, a NATO member, who has illegally imprisoned an American pastor on what are clearly bogus charges and few in the Christian community are raising their voice to call upon President Trump to demand his immediate release,” he continued.
Erdogan has openly bragged about imprisoning foreign citizens for the purpose of using them as bargaining chips to secure the extradition of his enemies, Richardson said.
One “enemy” Erdogan may be demanding from the United States is Fethula Mohamed Gulen, a rival Islamist living in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. From his gated fortress in the Poconos, Gulen runs the second largest chain of charter schools in America, but he is accused of subversive activities back home in Turkey.
“American citizens are not political pawns,” Richardson said of Brunson. “President Trump must call out Turkish President Erdogan and demand Pastor Brunson’s immediate release. It’s been far too long.”
Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice has also sent out two email alerts on the Brunson situation over the long holiday weekend, asking his supporters to sign a petition demanding the pastor’s freedom.
“These new, more serious, and demonstrably false charges carry significantly stiffer punishments, if convicted. American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s dire situation has intensified. He is in grave danger,” Sekulow said in the email.
After 322 days of wrongful imprisonment in Turkey under the “absurd charge of armed membership in a terrorist organization, Pastor Andrew urgently needs your prayers and voice more than ever,” Sekulow said.
“We are demanding his immediate release. He has committed no crime. He suffers only because of his faith in Jesus Christ. He must be reunited with his family.”
But there is hope.
Under new presidential powers, President Erdogan has the power to return prisoners to their home countries, Sekulow says.
“Take urgent action with us as we aggressively fight for his freedom across the globe.”
The petition has been signed by 330,948 people as of Monday at 1 p.m.
A recent report on Turkey by the European Commission highlighted the ongoing persecution of Christians, stating: “Hate speech and hate crimes against Christians and Jews continued to be repeatedly reported.”
“Typical incidents recorded by churches include Islamic anti-Christian posters and graffiti being deliberately placed near church buildings, anonymous threats sent by text and email to church pastors, as well as physical attacks,” Barnabas Aid reports. “In many cases, no official action is taken by police, despite crimes being reported.”
Erdogan’s government has also presided over the conversion of the Istanbul landmark Haga Sophia shrine into a mosque. The iconic Byzantine structure is highly symbolic as it was originally built as Eastern Christianity’s most important church. It had operated as a museum but late last year the first Muslim call to prayer was heard inside the former church in 85 years.
Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the Turkish government has cracked down on Christian activity under the guise of “national security concerns.” Not only has the government arrested Brunson, but several other foreign nationals involved in Christian ministry have had their residence permits rescinded, and Turkish police have openly stated that the activities of Christian missionaries are now regarded as a security threat.