[Above photo: Philip Kosnett, the U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires, talks to media after attending the third hearing for imprisoned U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson at a court inside the prison complex.]
After numerous optimistic reports indicating that U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson would finally be released at the end of his third hearing in Turkey, the court has once again continued the trial, this time to October 12. The judge also again sent the North Carolina pastor back to prison for another three months. Pastor Brunson is accused of having links with the organization that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup attempt, as well the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
At the time of his fourth hearing, Pastor Brunson will have spent more than two years of his life in a Turkish prison.
“My faith teaches me to forgive, so I forgive those who testified against me.”
The humble response from Pastor Andrew Brunson came after two hours of testimony for the prosecution during the third hearing held in Aliaga, south of Izmir. Three witnesses testified, including members of Pastor Brunson’s church in Izmir, where for 25 years he and his family led Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Christian congregation.
According to a World Watch Monitor report, the witnesses made “vague, unsubstantiated accusations,” following a pattern that has characterized the testimonies at the previous two hearings in April and May.
‘He Presented the Gospel’
Pastor Bill Campbell, who leads a church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, was among several supporters who attended the third hearing.
“As usual, there was much spurious testimony against Andrew,” Campbell told EPConnection after the trial. “Andrew’s testimony was absolutely powerful. He presented the gospel with confidence and defended himself with boldness.”
In a Facebook post, Andrew’s wife, Norine, posted that “the Lord was absolutely glorified!!! He explained why he was here, he gave the gospel. He publicly forgave all those who have come against him, forgiving as he has been forgiven.”
She continued: “He said, ‘It is a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ. Blessed am I, as I suffer for Him. Blessed am I, as I am slandered. Blessed am I, as I am being lied about. Blessed am I, as I am imprisoned. Blessed am I, as I share His suffering.’ I am incredibly proud of him as I am quite sure he doesn’t feel that blessing at this point.”
Campbell also said that a witness who was supposed to speak against Andrew actually spoke in his favor. Still, Campbell observed, “It felt like they had decided the outcome before the trial.”
Additionally, the court heard a witness for the defense—the first time since the trial began in April. However, the judge refused to hear the witness that Pastor Brunson initially requested to testify, saying the witness is also implicated in the indictment. The witness who appeared is reportedly less familiar with Pastor Brunson.
Media also noted that after the hearing, Pastor Brunson waved at supporters, saying only “thank you” in English.
A ‘Cruel Political Decision’
Since his detainment began in October 2016, Pastor Brunson’s defense and supporters, including U.S. government leaders and the European Union, have said that he is a political hostage. They contend that Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is keeping him imprisoned for diplomatic leverage. In September 2017, Erdoğan publicly declared that he would “swap” Brunson for the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Erdoğan claims led the failed coup against his leadership in 2016.
“You have one pastor [of ours] as well,” Erdoğan said last September. “The pastor we have [Brunson] is on trial. [Gülen] is not—he is living in Pennsylvania. Give him to us. You can easily give him to us. You can give him right away. Then we will try [Brunson] and give him to you.”
The decision to continue the trial and send Pastor Brunson back to prison is a “cruel political” one, says Nate Schenkkan, director of special research for Freedom House, which works to defend human rights. Schenkkan, who focuses on Turkey, tweeted that the trial is “a case study in the absurdity of the present Turkish justice system.”
Keeping him in prison is a political decision. I admit I'm surprised. Letting him out would have been a simple, cost-free way for the Turkish government to show it was concerned about the relationship with the United States. Holding him for at least 3 more months is a new low.
— Nate Schenkkan (@nateschenkkan) July 18, 2018
“It would be a farce if it weren’t so serious,” he wrote. “Letting him out would have been a simple, cost-free way for the Turkish government to show it was concerned about the relationship with the United States. Holding him for at least three more months is a new low.”
Philip Kosnett, U.S. charge d’affaires in Turkey, told reporters outside the courtroom before the hearing began that Brunson’s case was a “critical one for the United States and had ramifications for its relationship with Turkey.”
“The sooner Andrew Brunson can be reunited with his family, the sooner we can start focusing on other issues in the relationship,” he said.
Following the hearing, Kosnett shared his frustration.
“I’ve read the indictment, I’ve attended three hearings. I don’t believe that there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity. … We have great respect both for Turkey’s traditional law as a haven for people of all faiths and for Turkey’s legal traditions. And we believe that this case is out of step with those traditions,” he said in a written statement.
Kristina Arriaga, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Vice Chair, also attended the hearing. USCIRF has previously condemned the charges against Pastor Brunson and has called for his immediate release. Arriaga shared her disappointment, saying that Turkey’s government continues to make a mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson:
“Today I was hoping to see the judge order his complete release and put an end to the miscarriage of justice that Pastor Brunson’s entire case represents. Turkish authorities still have not provided one good reason for depriving Pastor Brunson of his liberties.
Arriaga called on the Trump administration and U.S. Congress to continue to apply pressure, including targeted sanctions against official connected to the case.@POTUS I urge you to continue to support Pastor Andrew Brunson in your talks with President Erdogan and in Congress' efforts to free him. It has been too long, and he needs to come home. #standwithPastorBrunson Click To Tweet
Senator Thom Tillis, who has lobbied Congress to place sanctions on Turkey, expressed his disappointment in a joint statement with Senators Jeanee Shaheen, Lindsey Graham and James Lankford:
I issued a joint statement with @SenatorShaheen @SenatorLankford @LindseyGrahamSC after a Turkish court in Izmir ordered American citizen Andrew Brunson to remain imprisoned until his trial resumes on October 12. #FreePastorBrunson https://t.co/hocKpXd6qV
— Senator Thom Tillis (@SenThomTillis) July 18, 2018
The discouraging decision comes after several weeks of cautiously optimistic reports that Pastor Brunson would be released after this third hearing.
In late June, Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Lindsey Graham visited Andrew in prison and then met personally with Erdoğan in Ankara to discuss U.S. sanctions on Turkey, of which Pastor Brunson’s imprisonment is a key factor. Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a bill including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment. After the meeting, the senators reportedly said they believed the president had not been “properly briefed” about the seriousness of the sanctions, but that he “now understood.”
And following the NATO Summit, Erdoğan and Trump, who has publicly called for Pastor Brunson’s release, reportedly discussed the case during a phone call, according to the Turkish pro-government daily newspaper, Sabah.
The Turkish government has said that any decision was up to the court. “They say that the government should release him,” said Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglusaid. “Is it in my power? This is a decision the judiciary will make.
But Gönül Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, offered a contrary perspective from Cavusoglu’s statement. Tol noted that a panel of three judges will decide Brunson’s fate and that the Turkish judiciary is “under the complete control of Erdoğan,” he said.
A former opposition member of the Turkish parliament, Aykan Erdemir, told the tk Al-Monitor that “powerful forces are working against Brunson.” Erdemir is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Both the pro-government media and the prosecutor’s office have dug themselves deep in framing Brunson as a terrorist, and it will be a challenge for them to pull a U-turn.”
He added that Erdoğan’s nationalist allies “have a proven track record of anti-Christian and anti-missionary prejudice and would not welcome Brunson’s release.”
According to Brunson’s Turkish attorney, Ismail Cem Halavurt, political trials in Turkey often convene and recess multiple times with years going by before they’re completed. In May, Halavurt told reporters that he thinks the Brunson trial will probably last “two years at the very least.”
Praying Against the Darkness
If convicted, Pastor Brunson faces 35 years in prison–essentially a life sentence for the 50-year-old pastor. The indictment demands up to 15 years in prison for crimes in the name of the Gulen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and up to 20 years for obtaining state secrets for political or military espionage.
Since the official indictment and the first hearing on April 16 when a judge continued the trial the first time, the Body of Christ throughout the United States and around the world has fasted and prayed fervently for Pastor Brunson’s release and safe return to his family. On the Open Doors Prayer Wall for Andrew and his family, as well as on our social media, more than 3,500 people have written and shared their heartfelt prayers for him, Norine and their three children.
How do we pray and continue to hope for this family as the trial continues for yet a fourth hearing … a few reminders to consider:
Our battle is not against flesh and blood. Instead, Paul reminds us that we pray against the principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). The 62-page indictment accuses Pastor Brunson of “Christianization,” calling it an act of terror.” As much as we may be tempted to villainize President Erdoğan and his government, as Christ’s Church we are called to pray against the darkness. Pastor Brunson’s case is set against a backdrop of increasing Christian persecution and darkness in Turkey, which is No. 31 on the World Watch List.
Prayer is our greatest weapon. It goes beyond strongholds and into places we could never venture. And if you believe the Book of Acts, prayer can break chains, release prisoners, bring aid and relief to suffering saints like no other resource. Throughout his life, Open Doors Founder Brother Andrew has witnessed Acts-like prayer. He says that prayers can go where we cannot… there are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.”
God is sovereign; we don’t know His ways. Throughout history, God has used persecution as part of His sovereign plan to spread the gospel and strengthen believers. Persecution of Christians was prevalent in both the Old and New Testaments. Scripture tells us repeatedly that we will not always understand God’s ways. But we continue to pray even when things don’t make sense in our heads and hearts, trusting God and His wisdom–remembering that He is good and nothing is happening that He’s not aware of or allowing.
God is the master of timing. Throughout Scripture, we see that God is not in a hurry. For 400 years, the Israelites prayed for deliverance from Egypt. Even Jesus knew this. In the Gospels, Jesus says “my hour has not come.” We continue to pray knowing that God is the master of time and therefore the master of timing.
God is still working. Places or circumstances don’t limit God’s power. When Joseph was thrown into a cistern by his brothers, God was still working. When he was unjustly imprisoned, God was still there, using the circumstances to mature Joseph and ultimately save His people. And God still works through our prayers. When we pray, we show that we are trusting God to work even when our finite view limits our perspective.
In His Word, God has shown us how to pray for the persecuted. We can find insight and practical help in the scriptures:
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).
“With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
…but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32).
And finally, we can pray the powerful prayer Pastor Brunson recently shared, asking God to use Him: “Father, cause to burst into flame in the love You have for Jesus, that I may be a servant, ardent lover of Him, willing to undergo whatever is asked.”
Remember to write and share your prayers on our Prayer Wall where more than 1,700 members of the Body of Christ have expressed their hearts.
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