Amid threats of sanctions from the Trump administration during a historic State Department meeting on international religious freedom, Turkish officials moved American pastor Andrew Brunson from prison to house arrest on July 25.
The following day, President Trump issued a stern warning via Twitter: “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
Vice President Mike Pence told those attending the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., held July 24-26, that Brunson’s move to house arrest was a “welcome first step, but it is not good enough.”
Pence added: “And to President Erdoğan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences. If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
Franklin Graham, in Facebook posts July 25 and 26, said he is grateful for the White House’s “bold stand for religious freedom around the world,” and that Christians must continue praying for Brunson and his family.
It was unclear if U.S. officials had threatened sanctions prior to Trump and Pence’s remarks, but U.S. pressure on Turkey has increased under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s leadership.
Despite warnings, Turkey subsequently denied Brunson’s appeal for release. He was awaiting continuation of his trial, scheduled for Oct. 12.
The Presbyterian pastor from Black Mountain, N.C., has been detained since 2016 on terrorism and espionage charges after serving as a pastor in Turkey for nearly 23 years. Brunson’s lawyers say he has been used as a political pawn by Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan.
Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told those attending the State Department event that her dad has endured depression, anxiety and other physical strain, yet “considers it a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ.”
Other persecution victims and their family members addressed the gathering, sharing horrific stories of suffering in places such as Muslim-dominated Pakistan, communist China, and in North Korea.