Freed pas­tor thanks Pres­i­dent Trump

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Amer­i­can pas­tor An­drew Brun­son yes­ter­day thanked Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for his ef­forts to fa­cil­i­tate his re­lease af­ter two years in de­ten­tion in Turkey on ter­ror-re­lated charges, in a hero’s wel­come at the White House.

The US pas­tor at the cen­tre of a diplo­matic spat be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Ankara ar­rived back in the United States yes­ter­day af­ter be­ing freed from house ar­rest in Turkey where he had faced ter­ror­ism charges.

Live tele­vi­sion images showed Pas­tor An­drew Brun­son meet­ing US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at the White House within 24 hours of be­ing freed.

Trump told Brun­son: “You are very, very spe­cial to all of us.”

The pres­i­dent said the two sides had been ne­go­ti­at­ing “long and hard”, and in­sisted that no ran­som was paid.

Brun­son – who has be­come a cause cele­bre for Trump’s con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian base – thanked the pres­i­dent be­fore kneel­ing be­fore him, plac­ing his hand on his shoul­der and pray­ing for Trump to have “su­per­nat­u­ral wis­dom”.

The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment said yes­ter­day that out­side pres­sure did not in­flu­ence a court’s de­ci­sion to lift the house ar­rest and travel ban on Brun­son.

“No Turk­ish of­fice, es­pe­cially our pres­i­dent, yielded to all the pres­sure, threats and out­ra­geous state­ments,” said Omer Ce­lik, a spokesman for the rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP).

Re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Ankara soured over Brun­son’s two-year de­ten­tion, with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion slap­ping sanc­tions on Turkey’s jus­tice and in­te­rior min­is­ters.

The 50-year-old pas­tor was de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016 and ar­rested that De­cem­ber.

He was ac­cused of links to the move­ment of Fethul­lah Gulen, an Is­lamic cleric who lives in ex­ile in the US, whom Turkey blames for a failed coup at­tempt in July 2016.

Brun­son was also ac­cused of hav­ing ties to the out­lawed Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), which is des­ig­nated a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion by Turkey, the US, and the Euro­pean Union.

A rul­ing by a Turk­ish court on Fri­day al­lowed Brun­son to re­ceive credit for time al­ready served, mean­ing he could go free.

Brun­son main­tained his in­no­cence through­out the process, and Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said the charges were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

Af­ter a brief stopover in Ger­many for a med­i­cal check, Brun­son ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton yes­ter­day.

US me­dia re­ported that the White House had struck a deal with Ankara, in which Brun­son would be re­leased and some charges against him dropped in ex­change for the eas­ing of eco­nomic pres­sure on Turkey.

“There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the re­lease and re­turn of Pas­tor An­drew Brun­son,” Trump tweeted in re­sponse to the re­ports. “I don’t make deals for hostages.”

“There was, how­ever, great ap­pre­ci­a­tion on be­half of the United States, which will lead to good, per­haps great, re­la­tions be­tween the United States & Turkey!” he tweeted.

Er­do­gan re­sponded: “I hope that the United States and Turkey con­tinue co-op­er­a­tion in a man­ner that be­fits two al­lies.”

Turkey said its ju­di­ciary is in­de­pen­dent of po­lit­i­cal con­cerns.

The case had seen Turkey and the US im­pose tit-for-tat sanc­tions on each other’s se­nior of­fi­cials, as well as tar­iffs on im­ports.

Brun­son is an evan­gel­i­cal Pres­by­te­rian cler­gy­man who lived in Turkey for nearly half his life, ini­tially mov­ing there in 1993 as part of a mis­sion­ary pro­gramme.

He was first de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016, faced up to 35 years in jail.

Pros­e­cu­tors then de­manded a sen­tence of up to 10 years.

The pas­tor has stead­fastly in­sisted that he was not guilty.

“I am an in­no­cent man. I love Je­sus. I love Turkey,” he said in his fi­nal de­fence.

When the ver­dict was read out, Brun­son wept and hugged his wife Norine.

Af­ter gath­er­ing his be­long­ings, Brun­son was driven to the air­port in the Turk­ish city of Izmir, where he boarded a US mil­i­tary plane for Ger­many.

Upon ar­rival there for a re­fu­elling stop, he kissed an Amer­i­can flag pre­sented to him by Richard Grenell, the US am­bas­sador in Berlin.

While the strain in US-Turk­ish re­la­tions eased with Brun­son’s re­lease, prob­lems re­main.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo urged Turkey to “quickly re­lease” other Amer­i­cans in de­ten­tion.

He said that Wash­ing­ton would “con­tinue to work hard to bring home all Amer­i­can hostages and those wrong­fully im­pris­oned and de­tained”.

Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (Nasa) sci­en­tist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turk­ish na­tional, was jailed for seven and a half years in Fe­bru­ary on ter­ror charges, a term re­duced to five years last month.

And two Turk­ish em­ploy­ees of US diplo­matic mis­sions re­main in jail.

One of them, for­mer Adana con­sulate staffer Hamza Ulu­cay, was de­nied re­lease on Fri­day.

An­thony Skin­ner, direc­tor for Mid­dle East and North Africa at the Verisk Maple­croft con­sul­tancy, said that the US and Turkey had plenty of dis­agree­ments be­yond Brun­son.

“The clamp has now been re­moved, which opens the way for bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions to ad­dress other sources of dis­agree­ment, but Wash­ing­ton and Ankara still have to nav­i­gate through a mine­field,” Skin­ner said.

He pointed to Turkey’s order for Russian S-400 mis­sile de­fence sys­tems, which has riled its West­ern al­lies, as well as Ankara’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to do busi­ness with Iran in de­fi­ance of US sanc­tions.

Turkey is brac­ing for po­ten­tial fines from US au­thor­i­ties over sanc­tions-bust­ing by Turk­ish lender Halk­bank, whose deputy direc­tor gen­eral has been jailed in the United States.

Trump and Brun­son par­tic­i­pate in a prayer at the Oval Of­fice. Also seen are mem­bers of Congress and ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

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