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