Pas­tor de­nies ter­ror link

The Daily Courier - - WORLD -

ALIAGA, Turkey (AP) — An Amer­i­can pas­tor on Mon­day de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions that he aided ter­ror groups or spied against Turkey, speak­ing at the be­gin­ning of his trial in a case that has strained ties be­tween Turkey and the United States.

An­drew Craig Brun­son, a 50-year-old evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor from North Carolina, faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of “com­mit­ting crimes on be­half of ter­ror groups with­out be­ing a mem­ber” and “es­pi­onage.”

Brun­son, who de­nies any wrong­do­ing, was ar­rested in the af­ter­math of a 2016 coup at­tempt for al­leged links to the out­lawed Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a net­work led by U.S.-based Mus­lim cleric Fethul­lah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the coup at­tempt.

The U.S. State De­part­ment said Brun­son’s case was be­ing watched closely by “the en­tire U.S. govern­ment.”

“We have seen no cred­i­ble ev­i­dence that Mr. Brun­son is guilty of a crime and are con­vinced that he is in­no­cent,” spokes­woman Heather Nauert said in a state­ment.

Brun­son served as pas­tor of Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church, a small Protes­tant con­gre­ga­tion, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years. Brun­son de­nies any wrong­do­ing.

“I don’t ac­cept any of the al­le­ga­tions or ac­cu­sa­tions,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Brun­son as telling the court in the town of Aliaga, some 60 kilo­me­tres (38 miles) north of the Aegean coastal city of Izmir.

“I did not en­gage in any il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity. I had no re­la­tions with any­one en­gaged in such ac­tiv­ity,” Brun­son said. “I am a Chris­tian pas­tor. I did not join an Is­lamic move­ment. Their aims and mine are dif­fer­ent.” The agency said the pas­tor de­liv­ered his de­fence state­ment in Turk­ish. The pas­tor also told the court he would never work against Turkey. “On the con­trary, I love Turkey. I have been pray­ing for Turkey for 25 years,” the Cumhuriyet news­pa­per quoted Brun­son as say­ing.

Cumhuriyet said the pas­tor wept in court dur­ing an af­ter­noon ses­sion, say­ing be­ing alone in a cell had af­fected his psy­cho­log­i­cal state.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Til­lis and Sam Brown­back, U.S. am­bas­sador-at-large for re­li­gious free­doms, ob­served the trial, which the court later ad­journed un­til May 7.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion is deeply con­cerned about this case,” Brown­back told re­porters out­side the court­house

In the United States, Re­pub­li­can Sen. James Lank­ford of Ok­la­homa warned of pos­si­ble con­gres­sional ac­tion against Turkey if Brun­son is not re­leased.

“It is un­con­scionable that Turkey, a NATO ally, has un­justly held an Amer­i­can pas­tor in prison since Oc­to­ber 2016,” Lank­ford said.

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