After almost 11 hours in the second hearing for U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, a Turkish judge has continued the trial a third time and has again sent Pastor Brunson back to prison for 10 weeks. His next hearing is scheduled for July 18.
For the last three weeks after the first hearing on April 16, Brunson has been held mainly in Buca prison in Izmir–the city where he and his family planted and led the small congregation of Izmir Resurrection Church for 23 years. Today, May 7, marks 19 months since the American pastor was detained in Turkey and arrested on Oct. 7, 2016.
‘I’m helping refugees’
At the hearing in Yeni Sakran, a coastal town in western Turkey, Pastor Brunson once again vehemently denied charges of espionage and terrorism against him and any links to the the outlawed Kurdish PKK militant group and a network led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.
Brunson reportedly told the court: “My service that I have spent my life on has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus, but these claims are shameful and disgusting … There is not one photograph or tape recording praising the PKK at the Resurrection Church. Our church had several Turkish followers. Our doors were open to everyone. I strived to prevent politics from entering the church.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that once again, witnesses appeared on two large screens via video link, with their faces blurred and their voices altered instead of being there live to offer their testimony. One of the witnesses identified as Serhat and describing himself as a Christian testified for two hours, often saying he hadn’t personally witnessed the events he was describing. He said he had heard that Brunson’s church had provided shelter to refugees affiliated with the PKK and financial support to African students who attended one of Mr. Gulen’s schools.
“I saw a lot of PKK flags on the social media accounts of some churchgoers,” the witness said.
Pastor Brunson denied sympathizing with the PKK or having connections to Mr. Gulen. He said some of the social media messages the witness referred to were posted after he was taken into custody.
“I’m helping refugees, they say I’m aiding the PKK. I’m setting up a church, they say I got support for the network of Mr. Gulen,” he told the court in Turkish.
Further proving that Brunson is not getting a fair trial, at the end of Monday’s hearing, the presiding judge dismissed all of Pastor Brunson’s witnesses without listening to their testimonies.
Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom who attended the hearing, said the U.S. has “serious concerns … Today’s 11 hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of,” she said in a statement. “Upon these rests a man’s life. Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”
Outside the court on Monday after the hearing, Jolley told reporters: “Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here in prison is another day that the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world. People are so upset that you can snatch up someone and you have no recourse.”
A Political Hostage
Major news reports, including recent in-depth coverage from The Atlantic, reaffirm that Pastor Brunson is caught up as a political hostage after a failed coup against the government of Turkey President Erdogan in summer 2016, blamed on Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, now living in the U.S.
Not quite three months after the coup, Pastor Andrew was detained during an investigation into his residency visa status. Initially told he would be deported within 15 days as a “threat to national security,” he was later accused by an anonymous witness of being linked with the Gülen movement and conducting “missionary activities.”
Last September, President Erdogan suggested publicly to the U.S. to swap “your pastor” [Brunson] in exchange for Turkey’s demanded U.S. extradition of “our cleric” [Gülen] to Turkey. But the U.S. judiciary contends that the files lack the hard, credible evidence required under U.S. laws to extradite a legal permanent resident of the U.S. back to Turkey.
Over the last month, government officials, including President Trump, have publicly expressed their support for Pastor Brunson, calling on Erdogan to release Brunson, whom they say is being used as a “political pawn.” President Trump tweeted his support. A day after Trump’s post, 66 U.S. senators– two-thirds of the US Senate–declared in a letter to President Erdoğan: “That a Turkish court could accept such a document as the basis for prosecution removes any shred of doubt that Andrew Brunson … is being used as a political pawn by elements of the Turkish government bent on destroying the longstanding partnership between two great nations.”
Newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to soon meet with Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington. On Saturday, Cavusoglu said that any decision [about Brunson] was up to the court.
“They say that the government should release him,” he said. “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 Erdogan,” he said.
Increasing Worldwide Support
The most recent show of support for Pastor Brunson came on May 4 when more than 50 members of the European Parliament wrote to President Erdoğan, protesting Turkey’s treatment of him “as a bargaining chip.” Expressing “deep concern about the wrongful imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” the letter reiterated the Parliament’s resolution on February 7, urging Turkey to respect its European and international commitments on the prohibition of arbitrary detention by releasing Brunson:
“Pastor Andrew Brunson has been living peacefully in Turkey for 23 years. We believe he is an innocent political prisoner; therefore, we urge you again to release him without delay.”
The letter also acknowledged the religious persecution of Brunson, protesting the indictment’s association of “Christianization” with terrorism, which implies that the Christian faith is endangering Turkey’s unity.
And on Monday the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the U.S. legal team representing Pastor Brunson, announced what Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow called a “major development” in the case. In the public announcement, Sekulow stated that the U.N Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has agreed to take Pastor Brunson’s case. The group is an independent panel of international human rights experts who investigate cases of arbitrary arrest and detention. Each year, the group accepts only a limited number of cases.
While they don’t have authority over the Turkish court, Sekulow noted that if the Working Group finds that Pastor Brunson’s human rights have been violated, it will add “immeasurable weight” to the pressure Turkey is already under to release him, and could ultimately result in tough sanctions if the pastor is not released.
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. Halavurt told reporters that he thinks the Brunson trial will probably last “two years at the very least.”
Praying and Holding Out Hope for the Brunsons
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 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 2,500 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 … a few reminders to consider:
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).
“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.”
…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). #standingwithPastorBrunson
Remember to write and share your prayers on our Prayer Wall where more than 1,400 members of the Body of Christ have expressed their hearts.