Brunson denies terror links, spying in Turkish court

Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen Times

Speaking during the first day of his long-awaited trial, a Christian missionary from Black Mountain on April 16 denied accusations that he aided terror groups or spied against Turkey.

Andrew Craig Brunson, 50, faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage” in a case that has strained relations between the United States and Turkey.

“I don’t accept any of the allegations or accusations,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Brunson as telling the court in the town of Aliaga, Turkey, some 38 miles north of the Aegean coastal city of Izmir. Brunson has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and had served for years as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation.

Brunson has been in prison since October 2016. Supporters say the charges brought against him are false and may be part of a larger scheme by the Turkish government to persuade the United States to extradite an opponent of Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and former Kansas governor and senator Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms, watched the first day of the trial.

The Turkish news organization Hurriyet reported that proceedings were recessed until May 7.

Brunson’s plight has weighed heavily on family and friends in Black Mountain and Montreat.

Members of Christ Community Church in Montreat have prayed regularly for Brunson and compiled a seven-day prayer guide calling for individual and group prayer on his behalf leading up to the trail.

It asks members to pray for Brunson’s faith and physical stamina — he has lost 50 pounds while in custody — and “that Andrew’s hope remains in Jesus and His purposes for the gospel in Turkey.”

Brunson’s lawyer told Reuters news agency before the trial began that Brunson is being persecuted because of his religion.

Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the coup attempt.

The indictment — which says it is based on the testimony of witnesses, including three secret ones, and digital evidence — says the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord.

U.S. officials have repeatedly called for Brunson’s release, and President Donald Trump has asked Erdogan to have his government “expeditiously” return the pastor to the U.S.

Erdogan fired back with a demand that the U.S. return Gulen to Turkey. “Give him (Gulen) to us, and we will try (Brunson) and return him,” Erdogan said last year.

Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied involvement in the coup. Erdogan’s comments only further fed worries by some that Turkey is using Brunson as a way of pressuring the U.S.

Judges decide guilt or innocence in the Turkish judicial system. Internal and external critics say Erdogan and his administration have exerted undue influence on judges and others in the system in recent years.

“Both the institutional independence of the judiciary and the personal independence of

individual judges are significantly compromised in Turkey by the politicization of the judiciary and its institutions,” the International Commission of Jurists found in 2016.

Brunson has been in Turkey for more than 20 years and spoke in Turkish at the trial.

“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years... I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities,” Reuters quoted him as saying Monday.

Anadolu Agency said Brunson told the court, “I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different.”

Brownback told reporters outside the courthouse that the Trump administration “is deeply concerned about this case. ... We completely believe (that) Andrew Brunson is innocent. We are hopeful (that) the judicial system will find that.”

He added: “You’ll continue to see very high-level U.S. government interest in this until he is released.

Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for Tillis, said the senator’s presence is intended to send the same message.

Keylin said that when Tillis met with Brunson recently, “Pastor Brunson told Senator Tillis that his greatest fear was that America would accept the absurd charges laid out in the indictment and forget about him. Senator Tillis told Pastor Brunson that he would not let that happen and the American government would not give up on efforts to get him released.

“Senator Tillis’ and Ambassador Brownback’s presence at the trial is a message to both Pastor Brunson and the Turkish government that America acknowledges Pastor Brunson’s innocence and stands by him in solidarity,” Keylin said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.