The US Pastor Andrew Brunson on Monday denied allegations of any links to the Gülen movement, as he went on trial in a case that has fuelled strains in relations between Turkish government and Washington administration.
Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina living in Turkey for 23 years, was been indicted on charges of helping the Gülen movement that Turkish government holds responsible for the controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
Tight security measures were in place at the court in the western city of İzmir. A group of US senators arrived in İzmir for the hearing, Turkish pro-government NTV said.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out,” Andrew Brunson told the court in the western Turkish town of Aliağa, north of the Aegean city of İzmir.
“I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities,” said Brunson, wearing a white shirt and black suit and making his defence in Turkish, according to a report by Reuters. His wife was in the courtroom, as were North Carolina senator Thom Tillis and US envoy for religious freedom Sam Brownback.
Brunson faces two separate terms of 15 and 20 years in prison if convicted. Turkish government accuses Brunson of gathering intelligence using his religious work as cover, and working to convert Kurds to Christianity to “divide” the country.
He was originally charged with membership of the Gülen movement and risked life imprisonment. The latest indictment explicitly states he is not charged with being a member of Gülen movement or the PKK.
The US State Department has called for Turkey to release Brunson, 37 US senators and 78 members of Congress signed a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanding his unconditional release.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a US conservative Christian group lobbying for Brunson’s release, has called him a “hostage of the Turkish government.” Half a million people have signed a petition calling for Brunson’s release, stating that the case was putting Christianity on trial. US President Donald Trump has also asked Ankara to “expeditiously” return the pastor to the United States.
Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases which have hurt ties between Turkey and the United States. The two countries are also at odds over Washington’s support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.
The trial further increases tensions between Turkey and the US — two NATO allies. In the Syria conflict, the United States has backed fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG); a group Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.
Washington has called for Brunson’s release while Turkish President Erdoğan suggested last year the pastor’s fate could be linked to that of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the controversial coup attempt.
Erdoğan referred to Washington in a speech to police officers last year that “Give us the pastor back’, they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gülen) to us,” he said. “Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you. The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”
The idea of a swap deal was brushed off by Washington. US officials have said that Turkish government has failed insufficient evidence to justify Gülen’s extradition, raising frustration in Erdoğan’s autocratic regime in Ankara.
A case study by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) had revealed on August 2017 that the hatred towards Christian minority groups in Turkey and xenophobic euphoria against Christians in general are being fueled in an unprecedented campaign led by Turkey’s rulers, especially the country’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The report has underlined that Erdoğan who often spews hate speech against Christians, particularly Vatican, continues to stigmatize millions of people in Turkey and around the world with his systematic and deliberate campaign of churning hostility against Christians. His propaganda machinery amplifies this hateful narrative and the mass media under Erdoğan’s control spread it further to a larger audience.
SCF had reviewed Erdoğan’s public speeches delivered in recent years to uncover the pattern as well as campaigns run by his associates in politics and media. Turkish president openly ruled out an interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity, branded the European Union as group of infidels led by the Pope, and even accused the United Nation Security Council as representing only Christian nations.
The unrelenting attacks against the Holy See, especially the Pope, often came out when Erdoğan bashed and tried to bully his opponents whether that would be Fethullah Gülen or countries like Germany and the Netherlands when he was prevented to run political campaigns for diaspora Turks.
Turkey survived coup attempt a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.
Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.
Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and other civil servants since July 2016. Turkey’s interior minister announced on December 12, 2017 that 55,665 people have been arrested. On December 13, the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.
A total of 48,305 people were arrested by courts across Turkey in 2017 over their alleged links to the Gülen movement, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Dec. 2, 2017. “The number of detentions is nearly three times higher,” Soylu told a security meeting in İstanbul and claimed that “even these figures are not enough to reveal the severity of the issue.