Turkey frees U.S. pastor held on terrorism charges
Evangelist denies links to coup attempt as court decision provides opening to ease strained relations with Trump
The American evangelical Christian pastor at the centre of a row between Ankara and Washington arrived at his home in Turkey on Friday after a Turkish court ruled he could go free, a move that may signal a major step towards mending ties between the allies.
Andrew Brunson arrived at his house in the Aegean coastal province of Izmir, a Reuters cameraman said, having left the courthouse in a convoy of cars.
He was released after the court sentenced him to three years and 11⁄ months in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not serve any further jail time. Mr. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was jailed two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who had imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Mr. Brunson’s freedom, tweeted: “PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”
Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge’s ruling he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”
After the ruling, Mr. Brunson’s lawyer told reporters the pastor was likely to leave Turkey. The U.S. military planned to fly him home on a military aircraft, officials told Reuters.
The diplomatic standoff over Mr. Brunson, who led a small congregation at the Izmir Resurrection Church, accelerated a decline in Turkey’s currency, worsening a financial crisis.
Mr. Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Mr. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.
Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate.
Mr. Brunson’s wife, Norine, looked on from the visitors’ area.
Mr. Brunson’s mother told Reuters she and his father were elated at the news. “We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world,” she said by telephone from her home in Black Mountain, N.C.
Mr. Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Mr. Trump’s ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in the Nov. 6 U.S. midterm elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.
The heavily conservative constituency voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Mr. Brunson a “great Christian”, and Vice-President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for Mr. Brunson.
“We thank God for answered prayers and commend the efforts of @SecPompeo & @StateDept in supporting Pastor Brunson and his family during this difficult time,” Mr. Pence wrote on Twitter. “@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!”
U.S. broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Mr. Brunson’s release. U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, told Reuters that active engagement by Mr. Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contributed to Mr. Brunson’s release.
Relations between the two NATO allies are also under strain over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defence system, and the U.S. jailing of a executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctionsbusting case.
With Mr. Brunson’s release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-U.S. national and former NASA scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the U.S. consulate who have also been detained. Washington wants all these people released, while Ankara has demanded the extradition of Mr. Gulen. The cleric, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, denies any role in the attempted coup.
Friday’s decision could be a first step to ease tensions, although Turkey’s presidency took aim at what it said was a prolonged U.S. effort to put pressure on its courts.
“It is with great regret that we have been monitoring U.S. efforts to mount pressure on Turkey’s independent court system for some time,” Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish President’s communications director, said.