Turkey must release innocent pastor held as political prisoner

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It’s encouraging to learn that Andrew Craig Brunson, the evangelical Christian pastor originally from Black Mountain who has been jailed in Turkey on what seem to be trumped-up charges, has been moved from jail, where he’s been for more than 18 months, to house arrest, as The Associated Press reported last week.

He has been allowed to serve home detention because of “health problems,” Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said.

This follows pressure from the U.S. government, including threats of sanctions from President Trump.

We’re grateful for this partial reprieve, but what we really need to see is the full release of Brunson and his return to his home in Black Mountain.

On Thursday morning President Trump, tweeting from aboard Air Force One, said the U.S. would hit Turkey with “large sanctions” if the country didn’t release a man he called an “innocent man of faith.” Trump’s words echoed comments by Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke with Brunson on Wednesday.

Along with the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is one of several senators who have been urging the Turkish government to release Brunson. He has traveled with others to Turkey twice to observe court proceedings and visit Brunson in prison.

Tillis, along with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, recently secured a provision in the Senate’s fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that directs the Secretary of Defense to submit a plan to Congress to remove the government of Turkey from purchasing American-made F-35 jet fighters.

They released a statement recently that said, in part: “Pastor Andrew Brunson has languished in a Turkish prison for the last two years, causing tremendous hardship and heartache for him and his family. He is an innocent man and has been unlawfully detained simply because he is an American pastor who assists all those in need, no matter their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Turkey and the United States are longstanding NATO allies and it is imperative to the interests of both nations that Turkey starts behaving like one.”

Brunson, 50, has served 23 years as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation in Izmir, but he is facing up to 35 years in prison on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage,” The Associated Press reported.

Brunson denies the charges against him, and his detention casts him as a political prisoner being held in hopes of pressuring the U.S. into extraditing Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016. Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied involvement in the coup.

Cases like this often are resolved by quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, but with Brunson’s case under such high-level scrutiny, perhaps Erdogan — whom Trump has called a friend — will get the message and expedite his release.

The vigilance and escalated efforts on his behalf by the administration, Tillis and others are appreciated. Brunson should be released and allowed to return to the U.S. immediately.