Andrew Brunson Still in Jail After Two Hearings

American pastor Andrew Brunson remains jailed in Turkey after court appearances April 16 and May 7.

A 62-page indictment accuses Brunson of being a leader in, of all things, a Muslim terrorist organization. “I want the whole truth to be revealed,” he told the court at his first hearing. “I reject the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.” He pointed out that as a Christian minister, he would never participate in a Muslim terrorist organization. “That would be an insult to my religion,” he said. “I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement.”

But at the end of the first hearing, the judges sent Brunson back to prison, pending a second hearing May 7. Initially, he was sent back to the nightmarish Aliağa prison where he was originally held after being detained Oct. 7, 2016. His wife, Norine, described it as a crushing blow and asked for prayer on the couple’s Facebook page. Almost immediately she posted an update: “Thank you for praying! I just heard he was moved to the Buca prison.”

During the May 7 hearing, the court showed video testimony from anonymous witnesses who claimed Brunson had helped militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years and served as pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, denied all charges, calling them shameful and disgusting. The American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Brunson, reported that the witnesses at the May 7 hearing all admitted they had never seen or heard Brunson do anything.

But the court sent Brunson back to jail again, scheduling a third hearing for July 18.

Family members say Brunson has lost 50 pounds during his imprisonment and is struggling with anxiety and depression.

President Trump and Vice President Pence have both spoken in support of Brunson, and U.S. officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have visited Brunson in prison to assure him of U.S. efforts to free him.

Last September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed to be using Brunson as a political bargaining chip to gain the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States and whose followers Erdoğan claims were behind a coup attempt in July 2016. U.S. officials have said the Turkish government has not provided sufficient evidence to turn Gulen over to them.

Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) attended Brunson’s April hearing. Tillis called it a “kangaroo court” that relied on secret witnesses and scant evidence. And in a show of bipartisan unity, 66 U.S. senators sent a letter to Erdoğan, demanding Brunson’s release and calling the indictment “an absurd collection of anonymous accusations, flights of fantasy and random character assassination.”

The charges against Brunson carry a 35-year sentence, which effectively amounts to life in prison for the 50-year-old from Black Mountain, N.C.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has strongly condemned the indictment, saying, “No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American.”