Jailed missionary with local ties living ‘dark days’ in Turkey
Andrew Brunson spoke frankly about his mission work when members of Montreat’s Christ Community Church traveled to see him in Turkey three years ago.
Some days he saw progress in leading his church of a few dozen people while also aiding refugees on the country’s border with Syria. Other days he felt discouraged.
Being a missionary in a foreign country is “a very tough row to plow,” the Rev. Edward Brouwer, a Brunson friend who made that trip along with seven other Christ Community members, recalled in a recent interview. Brouwer himself served as a missionary in the Philippines.
“He was quite honest with the fact that in the 20 years he had been there, he had been up and down,” Brouwer said.
Life for the minister with Black Mountain ties got tougher still last October when the Turkish government jailed him on a charge of belonging to a terrorist organization.
He has been there since, making his fate the subject of discussions among Turkish and U.S. government officials and the prayers of hundreds of people back home in Montreat and Black Mountain.
People who know Brunson say the charge is absurd.
“Somebody is making false accusations about him. To what end, I don’t know,” said the Rev. Richard White, senior pastor at Christ Community, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation.
Brunson’s parents are members of Christ Community and the church financially supports the ministry of Brunson and his wife, Norine, in Turkey. She is in that country now, trying to win her husband’s release.
Some experts say internal politics in Turkey and the state of U.S.-Turkey relations means it could be a long time before Turkish officials decide whether Brunson, 49, has done anything wrong and whether to release him.
A country in turmoil
Turkey has been in a state of emergency since a failed coup attempt last July and thousands of people have been detained on politically related charges.
The country’s government extended emergency status for another three months following the narrow and disputed passage of a referendum that gives President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extraordinary powers.
As opponents of the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan (pronounced Err-doe-ahn) protest the results, “Paranoia is still going to be there” among Turkish authorities, said Birol Ali Yesilada, a political scientist who heads the Center for Turkish Studies at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.
“They may start cracking down even more. This is really an unfortunate case,” he said.
The United States wants to keep Turkey as an ally in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East, and cases like Brunson’s complicate relations between the two countries.
Brunson grew up mostly in Mexico, where his parents were missionaries, according to East Asheville resident John Sullivan and other family friends.
His father taught at Montreat College in the 1980s and early 1990s, White said, and Brunson spent time in the area then. His parents still live here.
Andrew and Norine Brunson met in college. She is also a child of a missionary family, and the couple decided to follow in their parents’ footsteps, arriving in Turkey in 1993. At the time Brunson was arrested, they had spent 23 years in Izmir, a city of 4 million people on Turkey’s southwest coast known as Smyrna in Biblical times.
Brouwer was a staffer at Christ Community in 2014 and now serves a Presbyterian church in Haywood County. He said the Brunsons’ church in Izmir’s downtown red light district, “tucked away, not in a building of note,” remains small, with about 25 people attending on a typical Sunday at the time of the visit.
The Brunsons also spearheaded an effort to turn the former British consulate building in Izmir into a prayer center, and Sullivan said the couple have provided food and other help to Syrian refugees.
“They were working with very marginalized refugees from the ravages of war in Syria,” White said. “They care for people and they’re absolutely committed to the church there, to the Christian community and to the gospel of Jesus Christ, that others may know of him.”
‘This great unknown’
Andrew and Norine Brunson were both summoned to a government office in early October and believed the appointment was in connection with their requests for permission to continue staying in the country.
Instead, both were jailed. Norine was let go 13 days later, but Andrew Brunson remains behind bars.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian organization helping Brunson, said he was initially held in isolation with few possessions. The ACLJ and the Rev. Jeff Jeremiah, leader of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination that the Brunsons belong to, said the conditions of Brunson’s incarceration improved in January.
Brunson is allowed reading material and weekly meetings with his wife, Jeremiah said.
What happens next is hard to predict.
Little is known about what Brunson is accused of doing, said CeCe Heil, an attorney with the ACLJ. He has a Turkish attorney, but Brunson’s file has been sealed, Heil said.
“There’s no real way to prepare a defense, and there isn’t a defined timeline” leading to a trial, she said. “We don’t know the charges. We don’t know the evidence. There’s no chance to confront witnesses if there are any. It’s just this great unknown.”
The Erdogan government’s fears of opponents and its emergency powers mean thousands of people are being held in legal limbo in Turkey, including many judges, journalists and ordinary Turks.
Supporters have several theories for why Brunson is being held.
Christians are a small minority in Turkey, and some reports say Erdogan’s government views them as a threat to national stability. Christian missionaries were viewed as a force of Western imperialism during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“In Turkey, missionary work is viewed with a high degree of suspicion by almost everybody,” said Yesilada, the Portland State professor.
The Brunsons’ Resurrection Church in Izmir has Kurdish members, which could draw suspicion from a Turkish government fighting a Kurdish independence movement based in the eastern part of the country, said Sullivan, Brunson’s friend in East Asheville .
Turkey’s government calls Fetullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania, the organizer of last summer’s coup attempt and wants the U.S. to extradite him to his home country. Others doubt Gulen had any significant role, and the U.S. has refused so far, saying there is a lack of evidence.
That’s led to speculation that the Turkish government could view Brunson as a bargaining chip for Gulen or for other things it wants from the U.S.
Yesilada doubts Brunson’s incarceration has anything to do with Gulen, saying few people had heard of Brunson before he was taken into custody. More likely, he said, is that Brunson was caught up in the same wave of suspicion as thousands of others in an atmosphere in which the flimsiest of accusations can result in arrest.
He said he knows little about Brunson’s case, but in general, “If you don’t like somebody, you accuse them of becoming involved in a terrorist organization. ... He could have been caught in some personal vendetta.”
Turkey’s foreign minister said in March that charges against Brunson stemmed from statements made by a translator he used, but did not provide details. Sullivan said Brunson’s Turkish is excellent, but he used an Arabic interpreter when helping Syrian refugees.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to an inquiry from The Asheville Citizen-Times. It issued a statement in March describing its efforts to have Gulen sent back to Turkey that appeared to deny Turkey seeks any kind of extra-legal arrangement to gain his return.
“The Republic of Turkey, being a democratic country bound by the rule of law, has not been engaged in any illegal plan or action for the extradition of Fetullah Gulen,” it said.
The theory Brunson’s backers categorically reject is that he has done anything to justify his detention. Sullivan described the Brunsons as “completely apolitical.”
The idea that Brunson would be involved in anything that would threaten the Turkish government makes no sense, said Ann Johnson, a Christ Community member who visited the Brunsons in 2014. “He’s a Christian missionary. He’s lived there more than 20 years. Why?”
Even if Brunson’s attorney and supporters could convince a judge that Brunson has violated no law, the judge might be reluctant to act, said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Court officials have been targets in the crackdown on civil liberties since the 2016 coup attempt. Barkey cited a case in which a three-judge panel released journalists for lack of evidence against them.
The journalists “were immediately rearrested when they left the building” and the judges lost their jobs, he said.
Detention of judges in Turkey also decreases the court system’s capacity to process cases.
Brunson has been jailed for more than six months “and apparently this could go on indefinitely,” Jeremiah said.
Andrew Brunson is hardly alone.
CNN reported in mid-April that 113,260 people have been detained in Turkey since the July 2016 coup attempt but only 47,155 were arrested on specific charges.
Among those incarcerated were 10,732 police officers, 2,575 judges and prosecutors, 208 civil servants and 131 journalists. Erdogan closed 179 media outlets and the inability of opponents of the referendum to get their message out is one of several reasons international observers have criticized the conduct of the election.
Counts of those detained in connection with the coup attempt by other media outlets vary, but all put the number of people behind bars in the tens of thousands. In addition, thousands of Turks in government jobs were fired.
The number of Americans and people with ties to the U.S. behind bars is much smaller, although there appears to be no definitive, publicly available count.
Serkan Golge, a NASA engineer from Houston with dual U.S. and Turkish citizenship, was taken into custody last July as he and his family were preparing to return to the United States after visiting family in Turkey.
He remains in custody, and media accounts say the primary piece of evidence against him appears to be a one dollar bill found in his brother’s old bedroom at the family home. Turkish prosecutors say Gulen blessed dollar bills and gave them to followers.
Golge professes his innocence, and Endangered Scholars Worldwide and the Committee of Concerned Scientists have taken up his case, saying he should be released.
The administration of President Donald Trump has pressured Turkey to release Brunson, but an expert on the country’s politics said Trump has misplayed his hand and could do more to win Brunson’s freedom.
Trump called Erdogan April 17 to congratulate him on the results of the referendum and has agreed to host Erdogan for a state visit in May, a significant honor for the Turkish leader. Around the same time, European countries and Trump’s own State Department were voicing concerns about the legitimacy of the vote.
Trump is rewarding Erdogan ‘s bad behavior, Barkey said.
“He undercuts his own State Department. This is complete incompetence,” he said.
Both of North Carolina’s U.S. senators and the two U.S. House members representing Western North Carolina were among 78 senators and representatives who signed a letter asking for Brunson’s release in February.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the issue with Turkish officials during a March visit to the Turkish capital, Ankara, and met with Norine Brunson for 20 minutes during his trip there. The ACLJ says Vice President Mike Pence wrote Norine Brunson a letter saying her husband’s release “remains a top priority of the U.S. government.”
Brunson, however, issued a statement in late March questioning the administration’s efforts.
“Will the Turkish government face no consequence for stubbornly continuing to hold an American citizen as a political prisoner?” it asks.
“I plead with my government – with the Trump Administration – to fight for me. I ask the State Department to impose sanctions. I appeal to President Trump: please help me. Let the Turkish government know that you will not cooperate with them in any way until they release me. Please do not leave me here in prison,” Brunson wrote.
Barkey said Trump should have raised the issue with Erdogan when the two spoke April 17 and should make the Turkish leader’s visit to the U.S. contingent on releasing Brunson and other political prisoners with U.S. ties.
“The Turks are bullying us,” he said. He noted that Turkish warplanes on April 25 bombed Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria who are U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.
An American air base in Turkey is important to U.S. military efforts in the Middle East and the two countries have long been allies. But Barkey said the United States also has things Turkey wants and should use its leverage.
“Erdogan is dying to come to Washington” because that will be seen as enhancing his legitimacy in the face of concerns about the referendum, Barkey said. Brunson’s supporters should protest the invitation, he said.
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, wrote recently in The Washington Post that the aftermath of the referendum is “one of those situations in which the United States has to wrestle between its long-term interest in promoting democracy and the rule of law and its short-term interest in preserving a vital alliance in a troubled region.”
He didn’t reference the Brunson case, but said Trump’s congratulatory call to Erdogan implies “democracy and human rights are not a concern at all.”
Sullivan is more inclined toward a charitable view of the Trump administration’s efforts.
The ideal situation would be if the president picked up the telephone and call Mr. Erdogan” demanding Brunson’s release, he said. However, “It’s certainly understandable that this doesn’t reach the top of his pile.”
Hearing the call
Meanwhile, family, friends and other supporters wait and worry about Brunson and his wife.
Christ Community members have held special prayer vigils and, Rev. White said, “We pray for them almost every Sunday. Rarely does a Sunday go by where we don’t give an update on Andrew and Norine.”
They, other Evangelical Presbyterian Church members and allies have written to the Turkish and American governments, signed petitions and taken other steps to draw attention to his case.
Church members sent postcards to Brunson in jail. They wrote two sentences on the cards wishing him well in Turkish in hopes that jailers would recognize they pose no threat and pass them on to him.
“He’s missed Thanksgiving. He’s missed Christmas. He’s missed his birthday,” Heil said.
Brunson’s daughter, a student at UNC Chapel Hill, was scheduled to be married in June, but the ceremony has been postponed for fear Brunson wouldn’t be able to walk her down the aisle.
“You hear about Christians being persecuted in the world, but it really hits home when it happens to someone you know and have interacted with,” said Johnson, who went on the 2014 trip to Izmir.
“He’s really in a bad, bad place. I’m just hoping and praying that something happens soon,” she said.
Brouwer worries about his friend’s ability to wait for help from whatever corner.
“I pray that God’s grace would be in his life,” he said. “From what we’re told, he feels abandoned right now. He feels very much alone.”
As a missionary in a foreign country, Brouwer said, “There are dark days. There are dark moments, and he’s definitely going through that.”