US pastor caught in global politics goes on trial in Turkey

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For the past year, a converted basketball court at a high-security prison in the Turkish town of Yenisakran has hosted the trial of almost 300 military officers accused of taking part in a violent attempted coup.

On Monday, it held just one defendant: Andrew Brunson, an American Evangelical pastor caught in the net of a sweeping government crackdown that followed the coup in 2016.

Supporters hoped that the hearing, the first time the pastor has appeared in court since his arrest 18 months ago, would offer the chance for his release, ending his ordeal and removing a big source of tension between Turkey and the US.

But on Monday night, after a 12-hour court session, those hopes were dashed as a judge ordered him to remain behind bars until the next hearing, scheduled for May.

The long detention of the pastor without trial has made him a hero for US Christian activists and helped send the relationship between Washington and Ankara plummeting to a decades-long low. Mr Brunson’s supporters claim that the pastor has become a pawn in a wider political power play amid growing tension between the two Nato allies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year offered to swap the pastor for Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric exiled in Pennsylvania who is accused of masterminding the failed putsch. Those remarks were badly received in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill, where Congressmen have threatened to hit back with sanctions.

In a sign of the importance of the case for the US government, the hearing was attended by Sam Brownback, a former governor of Kansas appointed by US president Donald Trump to serve as ambassador for international religious freedom.

Speaking outside the courtroom earlier in the day, he delivered a stark message. “The administration cares deeply about the relationship with Turkey,” he said. “That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated.”

Originally from North Carolina, Mr Brunson has lived in Turkey for more than two decades with his wife Norine. In 2010, the couple opened the Church of the Resurrection in the coastal city of Izmir. It hosted boisterous services for the tiny local Evangelical community, made up of a mixture of expatriates and Turkish converts.

Friends insist that the couple lived a quiet life, with little interest in matters beyond spreading the teachings of Jesus. “I don’t remember ever having any political discussion with him,” said one person who has known them for years. “He seemed either oblivious or uninterested. His life was about sharing the Gospel, and that was it.”

Everything changed in October 2016, three months after the coup attempt, when the pair were arrested after being called to a police station. Mrs Brunson was later released, but her husband has been held since.

Last month, a judge accepted a 67-page indictment that accuses the pastor of working with members of Mr Gulen’s movement and Kurdish militants in order to divide Turkey. It contains long redacted sections and relies heavily on the testimony of three secret witnesses.

In court, Mr Brunson dismissed the allegations against him as lies. Wearing a black suit and speaking in fluent Turkish, he claimed that the indictment was riddled with inaccuracies, mistranslations and senseless claims.

In the morning he was confident and composed. But later, the toll of his incarceration became clear. The pastor wept as he returned from a lunch break, explaining to the judge that he was suffering from trauma.

In a letter read out by his wife at their church the day before the hearing, Mr Brunson said he missed his family and his congregation. “I have cried many times from suffering and loneliness,” he wrote.

Mr Brunson’s detention is not the only irritant in the troubled US-Turkey relationship. The two nations have also found themselves at loggerheads over US policy in Syria, Ankara’s growing ties with Russia and the fallout from the failed putsch.

But the story of a US pastor trapped behind bars in Turkey has struck a chord back home. The Trump administration has many ties to his Evangelical Presbyterian church. In Congress, senators have discussed punitive measures on officials deemed responsible for the jailing of US citizens.

The sanctions proposal was put on hold earlier this year as the state department launched a drive to mend broken ties with Turkey, but it could be reprised if Mr Brunson’s case is not resolved soon.

Turkish officials reject the notion that Mr Erdogan has the power to release Mr Brunson, insisting that the Turkish judiciary is independent.

One senior official claimed that the Turkish president had not heard of the pastor until he was briefed on the case ahead of a visit to see Mr Trump in May last year.

But critics say Mr Erdogan can secure his freedom if he wants to. They highlight the release in February of Deniz Yucel, a jailed German-Turkish journalist, who was freed after intense diplomatic pressure from Berlin.

And they point to Mr Erdogan’s own comments from last September. “You have a pastor as well,” he said, referring to Mr Gulen. “Give him to us. Then we will try [Brunson] and give him to you.”



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