North Carolina native, Andrew Brunson, returned to American soil in the darkened early morning hours of Oct. 13, 2018. Before his detainment, the evangelical Presbyterian preacher had led a small congregation of roughly 25 people at Izmir Resurrection Church in Aliağa, located on Turkey’s Aegean coast.
Mr. Brunson, along with his wife—Norine—and their three children had lived full-time in Turkey for 21 years leading up to his detainment. His final two years abroad were spent arrested, imprisoned and finally placed under house arrest due to the Trump administration’s involvement.
April 2016, Mr. Brunson filed to renew his residence visa. On Oct. 7, 2016, he was summoned by the local law enforcement to make an appearance. He assumed that he was going in to discuss his visa renewal.
After arriving at the police station, he and his wife were detained and taken into custody, being told that they would be deported in 15 days. Mr. Brunson was sequestered in Harmandali Detention Center. Norine was released Oct. 9 with no further detainments or arrests. Mr. Brunson was detained and incarcerated from Oct. 7, 2016, through Oct. 13, 2018, by cell or house arrest.
After being detained, a lawyer tried to visit Mr. Brunson in jail but was ultimately denied access. With an affidavit in tow, the lawyer came back and was told by a law enforcement officer that Mr. Brunson had signed a statement which said that he was waiving his rights to legal representation.
Turkey also initially violated the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations when they denied a U.S. consulate representative a meeting with Mr. Brunson. During this early period of detainment, members of his church attempted to bring food and water but were denied access to him until Oct. 13.
It took until Dec. 9, 2016, for Mr. Brunson to gain access to a lawyer. Eventually, Brunson was moved to a prison in Aliağa.
In a report prepared by the European Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, Mr. Brunson was said to have “… lived under inhumane conditions, has lost over 50 pounds and has spent extended periods of time in a cell meant for eight people, but which at times has held as many as 22 prisoners.”
Also taking place in December of 2016, Mr. Brunson was officially arrested and then formally indicted March 2017. The court accused the pastor of being a member of Fethullah Gulen’s network, trying to convert Kurds to Christianity as well as having involvement with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Mr. Brunson adamantly denied all charges throughout the hearings.
The state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Mr. Brunson as stating in court “I did not engage in any illegal activity. I had no relations with anyone engaged in such activity. I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different.”
The ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) went on record saying that Brunson was arrested primarily due to his Christian faith. This cannot be understated; the Turkish government had suspected Mr. Brunson of trying to convert Kurds to Christianity to create rifts in Turkey. A 62-page indictment against Brunson accused him of many things including “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization.”
At another point during his trial, Mr. Brunson addressed the court saying “I’ve never done anything against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want the truth to come out.”
In response to the allegations of him trying to convert Kurds, he said “I talk about Jesus but it’s not to support the P.K.K. [Kurdistan Worker’s Party]. It is not to convert them to Christianity and be against Turkey. I say the same to Turks. I am not interested in politics. I’m not in favor of separation. I believe in Turkey’s integrity. What else can I say?”
One of Mr. Brunson’s staunchest supporters was Ihsan Ozbek, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. Mr. Ozbek dismissed the trial, saying “It’s an empty case.”
Empty or not, Mr. Brunson was imprisoned in one form or another for nearly two years.
In July of 2016, a failed military coup lasted a few hours and resulted in the deaths of over 250 people, with another 2,000 injured. Mr. Brunson has said he was in the United States during this time, only returning after the coup was quashed.
It is unclear as to whether Mr. Brunson was targeted for being an American, or a Christian pastor. Once the coup failed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began cracking down on Turkish media and having anyone suspected of Gulenist ties arrested in a state of emergency. The number of detainments—150,000 plus—are staggering and suggest that Mr. Brunson may have been lumped into the fold.
Regardless of the reasoning, Mr. Brunson was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly for belonging to a terrorist organization. The charges were lessened before trial to helping and harboring members, rather than belonging to any terrorist movement.
The Gulen organization is predicated on arguing that young Turks have lost their way in the world and education is the best form of attack. Known in Turkey as Hizmet, or service, the Gulen movement run schools in Turkey and all over the world. The leader of this U.S.-based organization is named after the self-exiled Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen. He is highly regarded and most of his followers consider him a spiritual leader.
In certain circles, he is thought to be the second most powerful man in Turkey.
Mr. Gulen has been residing in a 25-acre wooded estate near Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, nestled in the Poconos since 2000. While in Turkey, he was often distrusted by the Turkish government where secularism is enshrined in the constitution. Gulen—who wanted to curb Turkey away from secularism and focus the country on faith and morality over politics—had been firmly excluded from political involvement before he went into self-imposed exile.
The Gulen organization is estimated to have over a million followers in Turkey alone.
Dividing the country even further is that Erdoğan and his form of government have been deeply involved in the Syrian war since its 2011 inception. Unfortunately for Turkey, violence has spilled over the borders of Syria, which reignited Erdoğan’s fight against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party.
This division has allowed jihadists of the Islamic State to infiltrate Turkey.
President Erdoğan has created much trouble in his own right, tying himself up in the conflicts of neighboring countries. Erdoğan has shown an aptitude for delving into Middle East affairs far more than the Turkish people care for.
Erdoğan is a political Islamist, one who rejects Turkey’s secular heritage. Over the last several years, he has transformed into an authoritarian—locking up investigative journalists by the hundreds.
Both Gulen and Erdoğan are devout Muslims. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Gulen’s movement had a long alliance. With their focus on Islamic values, Erdoğan first used the Gulen movement’s bureaucratic knowledge to run Turkey while exploiting their connections to push the military out of politics.
In 2003, 300 army officials were jailed for allegedly organizing a coup. The vast majority of the evidence against them was later found to have been fabricated. Journalists have reported that the credible evidence leans toward Gulen having been the mastermind.
Once the military got relegated to the sidelines, the power struggle between Erdoğan’s AKP and Gulen’s movement contended for complete control of the state.
The war of two factions erupted; the winner was obvious from the start.
With the military dispatched, Mr. Erdoğan set his sights on dismantling Hizmet—The Gulen movement, in 2013. Erdoğan vowed to shut down thousands of private schools that help prepare students for exams. The Gulenists ran roughly a quarter of those schools.
The alliance—which was already turning sour—took a corner that couldn’t be straightened once Gulen criticized Erdoğan on how he handled the Gezi Park protest on May 28, 2013. The sit-in was to protest Erdoğan’s authoritarian policies and the Islamic-conservative AKP.
The Turkish government sent in armed patrols and vehicles to dissuade the protesters from continuing. Instead of retreating, people went arm-in-arm and kept marching towards the patrols and vehicles. The protestors were sprayed by high-powered water jets and bombed with gas. Still, they marched until things got violent.
More than five people were killed and another 8,000 plus were injured to various degrees.
After Gulen criticized Erdoğan’s tactics, the Turkish government shut down the movement’s private prep-schools. The government/movement quarrel escalated when then Prime Minister Erdoğan accused Gulen and his movement of trying to destroy the Turkish government. Tensions rose feverishly throughout the years, eventually culminating in the failed coup d’état.
If the 2016 coup was to succeed, the army faction—which Erdoğan has claimed was incited by Gulen—needed both public support and military backing. They received neither and were defeated in a matter of hours.
Though accused, Mr. Gulen has adamantly denied any involvement and gone so far as to condemn the coup. However, with the wave of arrests of people with known ties to the Gulen movement following the failed attempt, there is a likelihood of Mr. Gulen’s involvement.
Some of the arrested members of the coup reportedly said that they were told that they were taking part in military exercise and had no knowledge of a government overthrow.
Turkey is dissimilar to the United States in a multitude of ways. Notably, their military has intervened in politics only when protecting Turkey’s secularism and democracy. 2016’s failure marked the fourth coup since 1960. The Turkish army has also shown tension with Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP and their brand of political Islamism.
Approximately four months in the wake of a failed coup, Mr. Brunson walked into a police station with his wife believing they were going to discuss their visas. During this time, Erdoğan had implemented a widespread crackdown against all of his political enemies, namely Fethullah Gulen and his followers.
Brunson was accused and eventually convicted by Turkish courts. His crimes were supporting a terrorist organization and political and/or military espionage. Both charges pertained directly to Fethullah Gulen. His sentence carried an incarceration period of 35 years.
Initially, Turkey offered a trade for Brunson. If the U.S. would extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish government would gladly hand over pastor Andrew Brunson. President Trump would not make any deals, because it did not fit his hostage release foreign policy at that time.
An article written by Julian Zelizer (for CNN), captured how Donald Trump views and acts towards freeing American hostages:
“Politically, his ability to free hostages fits into an essential aspect of his presidency: his theatrical style of politics. Trump has a keen eye toward how his efforts look to the public through the lens of television as well as on the video clips that stream through the internet. He invests great effort in doing things that will generate immense media attention and play into a storyline that he hopes to tell about his first term in office. More so than his recent predecessors, Trump is attracted to presidential challenges that will bring immediate big payoffs for him and for the base of his party.”
In July of 2018, the Trump administration succeeded in removing Brunson from jail and moved into house arrest. President Trump amped up his call to release Brunson from Turkey as his midterm elections neared.
Due to the diplomatic fallout, Trump’s administration levied heavy tariffs against Turkey—the dispute with the U.S. resulted in the Turkish lira plummeting throughout the summer.
A new hearing was held in Turkey’s Western province of Izmir, where some unnamed witnesses reportedly withdrew their testimonies. This resulted in Brunson getting sentenced to three years in prison; time served. The court lifted administrative control, releasing Mr. Brunson to return freely to the United States.
President Trump said Brunson’s sudden release held no relation to the midterms. Nor was there any linkage with Turkey wishing for America’s help in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post.
Mr. Brunson cried and stated after the verdict “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus; I love Turkey.”
Andrew Brunson—50—returned to a free life in the United States with his wife and children, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Mr. Brunson has lauded President Trump and his administration for freeing him from his false imprisonment.