Amid U.S. Calls For Release, American Pastor Remains Behind Bars In Turkey

Apr 13, 2017
Originally published on April 15, 2017 8:09 am

Beth Herman says she's praying a lot these days for her brother, who was detained by Turkish authorities last October and has been in prison since December.

Andrew Brunson is an evangelical Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, Herman says, serving as the pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church.

"He's there because he loves Turkey and the people of Turkey," Herman says.

Brunson, 48, was charged with being part of an armed terrorist group, something Herman and his other supporters say is "totally false."

The American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization founded by evangelical minister Pat Robertson, has been helping Brunson's family raise awareness about the case. CeCe Heil, a lawyer with the organization, believes the pastor may have been caught up in a crackdown following last year's failed coup attempt in Turkey.

"The only thing we can really just assume has happened is [that after] the failed coup last July, where President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan started sweeping up anyone who might be seen as a threat, that Pastor Brunson was caught up in that," Heil said.

Erdogan wants the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric whom he blames for the coup attempt, and has been rounding up his followers. The American Center for Law and Justice says there is no connection between Brunson's church and Gulen. Some have speculated that Brunson's detention may be an attempt by Turkey to use him as a bargaining chip in securing Gulen's extradition.

Heil says the charges against Brunson are sealed and she has not had access to any Turkish court documents. State Department spokesman Mark Toner says that U.S. consular officials have been able to visit Brunson in prison on a regular basis.

"We have asked Turkish officials to consider releasing Mr. Brunson from custody, subject to whatever judicial conditions or controls that may be appropriate, while his legal case is resolved," Toner said at a State Department briefing Thursday. "He's been in custody for far too long."

Vice President Mike Pence has written to Brunson's family, saying he has a "deep personal interest" in the case and describing it as a high priority for the Trump administration.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson's wife, Norine, in Ankara in March. He also raised Brunson's case with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who called it a legal case, not a political one. He explained, without elaborating, that it arose because of a complaint from Brunson's Turkish interpreter. "It is a not [a] process that the judiciary and the police initiated themselves, but upon a complaint from his own translator," Cavusoglu said.

Herman, Brunson's sister, calls her brother a peaceful man.

"My whole family and all our friends, many, many friends, have been praying very faithfully for him for a long time," she says. "And some of us are also fasting intermittently because we know that God is with him and God loves him."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a case that's straining U.S. relations with Turkey. The Turkish government has arrested thousands following a coup attempt last year. An American Christian pastor seems to have been caught up in the crackdown. NPR's Michele Kelemen has his story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Beth Herman says she's praying a lot these days. She has had no contact with her brother, Andrew Brunson, since he was arrested in Turkey last October.

BETH HERMAN: Andrew has been in Turkey for over 20 years, and he was there as a Christian pastor. And he's there also because he loves Turkey and the people of Turkey.

KELEMEN: The 48-year-old pastor was charged with being part of an armed terrorist group, an accusation Herman says is totally false. She says her brother is a peaceful man, an Evangelical Presbyterian who has led a church in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir.

HERMAN: My whole family and all our friends - many, many friends - have been praying very faithfully for him for a long time. And some of us also fasting intermittently for him because we know that God is with him. And God, you know, is strong and will see him through. And God loves him.

KELEMEN: Beth Herman spoke to NPR by phone from her home in North Carolina, along with CeCe Heil, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been helping the family lobby for his release.

CECE HEIL: This past week, Pastor Brunson's wife received a personal letter from Vice President Pence, again acknowledging that Pastor Brunson's case is a high priority for the United States.

KELEMEN: Pence's office confirmed the letter, which says the vice president has taken a, quote, "deep, personal interest" in this case and has discussed it with senior Turkish officials. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Pastor Brunson's wife, Norine, when he was in Ankara last month. The Turkish foreign minister at that time told reporters that this was a legal case, not a political one. And he said the legal proceedings were initiated by a complaint from Brunson's interpreter. He didn't elaborate. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner says U.S. consular officials have been able to visit with Brunson on a regular basis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK TONER: We have asked Turkish officials to consider releasing Mr. Brunson from custody, subject to whatever judicial conditions or controls that may be appropriate, while his legal case is resolved. He's been in detention far too long.

KELEMEN: Lawyer CeCe Heil says this case is sealed and she has no access to the full charges or any other court documents. She speculates that he's a victim of a Turkish government crackdown in the wake of last year's coup attempt.

HEIL: So the only thing we can really just assume has happened is the failed coup attempt last July where President Erdogan started kind of sweeping up anyone who might be seen as a threat, that Pastor Brunson was caught up in that.

KELEMEN: She's hoping Turkey is not trying to use this case as a bargaining chip in an effort to win the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. Ankara accuses the cleric of orchestrating last year's coup attempt. Supporters of Brunson say he and his church had no connection to Gulen. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELLY'S "AQUARIUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.