A pastor becomes a pawn in a spat between America and Turkey

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SOME evangelical Christians in the United States have stratospheric political connections, and can be sure of gaining access to the White House whenever they want. But Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina who has been imprisoned for nearly a year in Turkey, is not part of that charmed circle.

Since 1993, he and his wife Norine have quietly built up and shepherded a community of about 25 souls in the Turkish city of Izmir, where they have raised three children. They belong to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a smallish group which takes an intermediate position on Presbyterianism’s liberal-conservative spectrum.

When the Brunsons were summoned to the police station last October, they thought they might be about to receive the “permanent resident” status they had long wanted. Instead, they were both put under arrest. She was released after 13 days, but he remains incarcerated. He was initially charged with membership of a terrorist organisation, and more recently with gathering state secrets and attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. The authorities have failed to produce any convincing evidence or indeed to release any details of the case against him. Just in the last few days it has become clear that he has been haplessly caught up in a wider standoff between the governments of Turkey and America.  

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested openly that the American pastor could be part of a high-level strategic swap. Swaps involving contentious individuals were a feature of the cold war: in 1976, for example, Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident, was exchanged for a Chilean communist. But in this case a NATO ally wants to trade Mr Brunson not for another man’s freedom, but for another man’s arrest and extradition: that of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher who lives in Pennsylvania.  

Speaking to police officers on September 28th, Mr Erdogan virtually offered to send Mr Brunson home if the American authorities would turn over Mr Gulen, an erstwhile friend of Turkey’s ruling party who is now blamed for fomenting last year’s coup attempt in Ankara. (It was his movement to which Mr Brunson was allegedly linked.)

According to Reuters, Mr Erdogan declared:  

‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gulen) to us…Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you….The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not—he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”

Unfortunately for Mr Brunson, what the Turkish president said is almost the opposite of the real situation. An American president does not have the power to order an extradition; that is a judicial matter. But few people doubt that Mr Erdogan could, if he chose, free the Christian preacher tomorrow.

The State Department has confirmed receiving an extradition request for Mr Gulen and also insisted that it has been lobbying hard for Mr Brunson’s release. In March Norine Brunson briefly met Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, although she was initially told there was no time for such a meeting. A department spokeswoman said she “can’t imagine” linking the two cases (Mr Brunson and Mr Gulen) as the Turkish leader suggests.

The net result is an ongoing tragedy for an unassuming American family. The White House says Donald Trump has raised the case of Mr Brunson at every opportunity with Mr Erdogan, including at a meeting this month, when Mr Trump hailed his counterpart as a good friend. It helps that the case has been taken by the American Center for Law and Justice, a lobby group which often campaigns for religious conservative causes.

But the main source of news about the saga is Norine Brunson who keeps the world informed through a Facebook page which makes for sad reading at times. Her husband has been kept at times in a very crowded cell, and has suffered extremes of heat and cold. His cellmates are devout Muslims who present no physical threat but are keen to convert him. 

During some visits the authorities forbade her to speak to her husband in any language but Turkish. In May she shared the news that “Andrew is extremely discouraged and really needs your prayers.” But tiny titbits of good news, like the fact that he was allowed a fan to cool the searing heat, and that he is being allowed walks in the courtyard, are also imparted to the world. She encourages supporters back home to fast and pray for her husband’s release, and many seem to be doing so. 

It is very hard to be a pawn in a such a cold-blooded and calculating game.

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