On Friday, Oct. 12, a former pastor for a small evangelical presbyterian congregation in Izmir, Turkey, was released from Turkish prison after roughly two years.
Andrew Brunson was originally detained and charged with support of a terrorist organization and political or military espionage. Brunson’s release is being conceptualized by many news sources as a symbol of relief from the tension that has existed between the United States and Turkey in recent years.
Brunson is an American citizen who resided in Turkey for nearly 23 years. On Oct. 7, 2016, he filed a request to renew his visa, but was shocked when what he had assumed would be a routine follow up resulted in his arrest and eventual deportation.
Brunson’s lawyers were denied access when they attempted to visit him, and Brunson eventually released a statement claiming that he did not want a lawyer. He was also denied any visitors and kept in solitary, away from the other prisoners. Then, in December of 2016, Brunson was subjected to cruel living conditions. He and twenty-one other inmates were held in a cell that was meant to hold eight prisoners at a time.
In a statement released by FOX News, Brunson recalled his initial response to the allegations.
“What was surprising is that they told me I was being held for terrorism and for trying to overthrow the government,” said Brunson in the statement. “The truth is if we had been preaching Jesus Christ—that’s why we were in Turkey—is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with Turks. We did that openly, and never had a problem. It was very shocking to be accused of terrorism.”
In an interview with FOX News, Brunson opened up about his time in prison, saying that “it was a very difficult time. I was surprised because I had never considered prison as a possibility and the costs for that. I was isolated by culture and by language but especially by religion. It was very difficult to be the only Christian among them.”
After more than two decades working in Turkey, Brunson was arrested following a failed coup. He was charged with spying for Kurdish militants and being a member of the Fetullah Terrorist Organization, the group that Turkish authorities blame for the attempted coup.
The Turkish government has claimed to believe that mass arrests are necessary to maintain structure in Turkey; tens of thousands of people were detained due to suspicions linking them to terrorist activities and groups.
At the time of his arrest, Brunson was sentenced to a little more than three years in prison. However, according to NPR’s Peter Kenyon, the court released him early due to health complications. At his hearing, Brunson wept after hearing the confirmation of his release. The North Carolinian flew back to the United States the day after his final hearing.
“The court also lifted judicial controls on Brunson- that means restrictions on his movements have been lifted and he is now free to leave the country,” said Kenyone.
Hopes are high that Brunson’s release will mark a new era for the relationship between Turkey and the United States.
“President Trump and his team have been tenacious in seeking the release of Pastor Brunson,” said Jay Sekulow, Brunson’s lawyer. “We’re grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson. The fact that he is preparing to return to the United States can only be viewed as a significant victory for pastor Brunson and his family.”
Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidential spokesman spoke on behalf of Turkey last Friday.
“Turkey is a democratic country with the rule of law, and established independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary. Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from any body, authority, office or person. We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will.”