Andrew Brunson

Andrew Brunson

Officials at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are blasting the decision in Turkey to return an American Christian pastor to prison until his next hearing in July.

Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American citizen and leader of a small Protestant Christian church in Turkey for years, is facing up to 35 years in prison on “false terrorism and espionage related charges,” the commission reported Monday.

“The judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable,” said Sandra Jolly, the vice chair of the USCRIF.

She attended the hearing in a Turkish courtroom for Brunson Monday and saw nearly 11 hours of proceedings. Brunson’s next hearing is July 18.

“We leave the courthouse with serious concerns. Today’s 11 hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life,” said Jolley.

Brunson first was detained by Turkish officials on October 7, 2016, and accused of membership in an armed terrorist organization. Two months ago, authorities indicted Pastor Brunson on terrorism and espionage related charges, seeking a sentence of up to 35 years imprisonment.

U.S. officials including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have called for his release, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed his concern regarding the ongoing detention.

“USCIRF believes firmly in the innocence of Pastor Brunson. We met with him in Kiriklar Prison last October. We have publicly advocated for his release and we are here today to stand with him and to call for his unconditional release,” Jolley said.

“It is unthinkable that a friend and fellow NATO ally would jeopardize our vital and historic ties. The American public and the U.S. Congress are deeply disturbed by the events of the past 18 months. The truth is that this case is part of a larger decline in personal freedoms, including religious freedom and human rights, that we are witnessing in Turkey in recent years. We are looking to the Turkish judiciary to uphold Pastor Brunson’s innocence.”

Turkey has turned from being a secular society with a strong Muslim presence to a Muslim society adhering largely to Shariah law in recent years.

The commission is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, the first of its kind in the world.

WND reported in April that the American Congress is considering its options to sanction Turkey if Brunson is not released.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., at that time explained in a Fox News interview Brunson had been doing humanitarian work in the country for 23 years, renewing his visa periodically with no problems. But in October 2016, he was swept up in a crackdown by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed coup attempt.

Lankford told Fox News U.S. officials believe Brunson was caught in the crackdown by accident, but now Turkey has accused him of aiding the coup attempt, without any evidence, apparently to gain “some sort of leverage against the United States.”

“What we need to do is impose sanctions against the individual judges, the individual prosecutors, against the individuals and Ankara’s government that are actually holding an American with trumped up charges – for a year with no charges at all,” the senator said.

Brunson is accused of aiding a group led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Muslim preacher who Turkish authorities allege was behind the failed 2016 coup. Gulen now lives in Pennsylvania, and it’s believed Erdogan ordered Brunson jailed to use him as a bargaining chip to secure Gulen’s extradition.

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