US pastor denies links to Turkish military coup as trial begins | World news


A US pastor has denied allegations of links to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey as he went on trial in a case that has compounded strains in US-Turkish relations.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He faces up to 35 years in prison.

“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,” Brunson told the court in the western Turkish town of Aliaga on Monday.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.

“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. His wife was in the courtroom, as were the North Carolina senator Thom Tillis and the US envoy for religious freedom, Sam Brownback.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases straining US-Turkish relations. The two countries are also at odds over US support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.

Washington has called for Brunson’s release while Erdoğan suggested last year his fate could be linked to that of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.

Gülen denies any association with the failed coup. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with the coup bid.

“The United States cares deeply about our relationship with Turkey,” Brownback told reporters during a recess at the trial. “That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated.“

Brunson’s lawyer said the pastor, detained 18 months ago, was in custody because of his religious beliefs. Turkey is a majority-Muslim country though constitutionally secular.

“There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith,” Ismail Cem Halavurt told Reuters on the eve of the trial, saying Brunson’s religious role had been “classified as aiding terror organisations”.

The Izmir prosecutor’s office said that sufficient evidence had been obtained to charge Brunson with aiding armed terrorist organisations and obtaining confidential government information for political and military espionage.

A copy of Brunson’s indictment seen by Reuters accuses him of working both with Gulen’s network and the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) militant group which has waged an insurgency in mainly Kurdish south-east Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

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