U.S. pas­tor de­nies charges of es­pi­onage, aid­ing ter­ror or­ga­ni­za­tions

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY MEHMET GUZEL

ALIAGA, TUR­KEY | 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.”

Mr. Brun­son 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. Both the Trump and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have re­sisted Tur­key’s de­mands that Mr. Gulen be ex­tra­dited to face crim­i­nal charges.

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

“I don’t ac­cept any of the al­le­ga­tions or ac­cu­sa­tions,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Mr. Brun­son as telling the court in the town of Aliaga, some 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,” Mr. 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 de­fense 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 Mr. Brun­son as say­ing.

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

Se­na­tor Thom Til­lis, North Carolina Repub­li­can, and Sam Brown­back, Pres­i­dent Trump’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,” Mr. Brown­back told re­porters out­side the court­house. “We com­pletely be­lieve [that] An­drew Brun­son is in­no­cent. We are hope­ful the ju­di­cial sys­tem will find that.”

He added: “You’ll con­tinue to see very high-level U.S. gov­ern­ment in­ter­est in this un­til he is re­leased.”

Back in Wash­ing­ton, Repub­li­can Sen. James Lank­ford of Ok­la­homa warned of pos­si­ble con­gres­sional ac­tion against Tur­key, if Mr. Brun­son is not re­leased.

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