American pastor, Rev Andrew Brunson (49)

On 29 December, a Turkish court denied an initial appeal for the release of Rev Andrew Brunson (49), an American pastor who has been under arrest since early October over alleged links to a terrorist organisation. A further appeal can be made to a higher court.

Andrew was detained under deportation orders in the port city of Izmir on 7 October 2016 and held in detention facilities without formal charges until 9 December, when he was brought to court for the first time for questioning. He was accused of “membership in an armed terrorist organisation” and sent to prison. The organisation in question is the Gülen movement (see below), blamed by the Turkish government for last July’s failed coup.

Andrew’s lawyer was denied access to him during his first two months of detention, but has since been permitted to meet him in prison three times. US Embassy officials were blocked several times in their attempts to visit Andrew in detention, but were permitted to meet him in prison on 30 December.

Andrew was allowed a family visit on 28 December, during which he said he has been allowed to have a copy of the New Testament, though not any other books in English. During his time in the immigration facility, he was denied access to a Bible. While Turkish prisoners are allowed family visits once a week, Andrew’s family must apply to the Ministry of Justice for every visit. The American Center for Law and Justice is representing his family.

Background

The Izmir Dirilis Resurrection Church pastored by Rev Brunson

Andrew is pastor of the Izmir Dirilis (Resurrection) Church (pictured), which has a congregation of thirty to forty members, on the west coast of Turkey. He and his wife Norine have led the congregation for 23 years. A native of North Carolina, Andrew belongs to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He and Norine have three children, who are studying in the US.

In April 2016, the Brunsons applied to renew their residence visas, but received no response. When they arrived home on 7 October, they found a summons requesting them to report with their passports to a local police station. On arrival, they were taken into custody.

According to the authorities at the Migration Administration’s detention facility in Izmir, the Turkish Interior Ministry ordered that Andrew and Norine be deported within 15 days as they posed “a threat to national security”. The directive reportedly accused them of activities said to constitute a “national security risk”.

They were held incommunicado, and a lawyer asking to visit them was denied access. Norine was released on 19 October and given an extended permit to remain in Turkey, but Andrew was detained at Harmandali Detention Center, an immigration detention facility on the north edge of Izmir.

On 8 December, he was transferred overnight to a counter-terrorism centre before being brought before an Izmir court on 9 December for interrogation. The court ordered that he be imprisoned on the grounds of links with a terrorist organisation. The judge said the terrorism charges came from a “secret informant”, and specified allegations that the pastor had links with the Gülen movement. He was transferred to Izmir’s Sakran Prison.

Prison conditions

On 28 December, Norine (pictured, left, with Andrew) posted a Facebook message in which she wrote, “I want to clarify that Andrew is NOT being held with violent people in prison. He is in a room with 11 Muslims who are very devout so prayers are always going on in the small room, but these are not violent people and he is not in danger from them. They all sleep in bunks in a fairly tight space, and eat the meals in another room and have a small courtyard to go out to.”

On 2 January, she wrote: “I got to see Andrew last Wednesday… He was very down and discouraged. He had been almost completely cut off. The week leading up to Christmas, the lawyer had come two days late. Until he saw her, he had no idea if I was still in the country, if his letters were going to an empty home, etc. as all my letters had been held. Also, because we had had hope for a release by Christmas, to then have things take a turn for the worse on 9 December was a crushing blow. Andrew turns 49 tomorrow. Please pray that the Lord will no longer remain silent, but will make his presence felt and do something very special for him.”

The Gülen movement

The Gülen movement, classified as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, has been blamed by the government for last July’s failed coup. Since July, thousands of judges, prosecutors, military personnel, opposition party politicians, journalists, teachers and other civilians have been arrested in an attempt to identify and prosecute those responsible. On 2 January, the Justice Ministry announced that to date 41,326 “terrorism suspects” had been arrested. Turkey is under a “state of emergency”, due to run until until mid-January 2017.

The man behind the movement, cleric and political activist Fethullah Gülen, lives in Pennsylvania, and the American authorities refuse to extradite him. Armenian members of Turkey’s parliament claim that retaliation for this refusal is the reason for the treatment of American Christians in the wake of the failed coup. In recent months, several expatriate pastors have been accused of being “a threat to national security” and deported.

Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told Religion News Service: “Protestant or Christian churches are seen as an American influence, and now that Turkey is anti-American, they are being targeted even more.”

Source: Church In Chains (Christianity Today, Middle East Concern, World Watch Monitor)