On April 16, Pastor Andrew Brunson did not celebrate Easter with his flock. Instead, he marked more than six months of confinement in a Turkish prison, where he is being held on charges of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”
Since 1993, American citizens Brunson and his wife Norine have faithfully shepherded a small but vibrant Christian congregation at the Resurrection Church in their adopted home of Izmir, a buzzing, ancient city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Originally from North Carolina, Brunson was ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and followed the call to church plant in the Muslim-majority nation, where less than 0.2 percent of the population identifies as Christian.
The Brunsons served the people of Turkey without incident for nearly 25 years, even as religious tensions mounted and an increasingly authoritarian regime squeezed religious freedoms. But everything changed on the morning of October 7, 2016, when the Brunsons were summoned to their local police station. Assuming they were about to receive their long-awaited permanent resident designations, they were surprised to find themselves detained on the grounds that they were a “threat to national security.”
While Norine was released two weeks later, Andrew was held for 64 days before his formal arrest and transfer to prison, where he languishes still. To date, the nature of the charges against Pastor Brunson remain ambiguous. According to reports by the American Center for Law and Justice, a U.S.-based legal advocacy group representing Brunson, even his Turkish attorney has been denied access to his file.
“There’s absolutely no rule of law – no due process in [this] case. It’s a completely bogus case,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a recent interview for CBN News. “Anyone who has looked at the case knows that these are trumped-up charges.”
Erdemir, who is a former member of the Turkish Parliament and outspoken defender of minority rights and religious freedom in the Middle East, said he believes that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is deliberately inciting religious tensions to strengthen his own power base following an attempted coup last July – an uprising that led to a government-imposed state of emergency, which remains in place today. In the wake of a referendum passed earlier this month by Turkish voters – giving Erdoğan sweeping new powers – Erdemir predicted that conditions will worsen for Christians like Brunson, who have already fallen prey to increased crackdowns and persecution.
Though the referendum passed by a slim margin of just 51.2 percent, it speaks to the weariness of a people plagued by terror attacks, security threats and a mounting refugee crisis. In addition to the coup attempt in July, the wave of terror included such violent acts as an explosion in the heart of Ankara that killed 34 people and left 125 wounded; deadly bombings at a wedding celebration, soccer game, and Istanbul Airport; and the assassination in December of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a lone gunman.
Against this backdrop, Christian persecution is on the rise in this NATO-ally country where democratic hallmarks – religious freedom and human rights – are in grave jeopardy. According to a recent report by the Association of Protestant Churches, which acts as the Turkish Protestant community’s representative and institution of unity, 2016 saw a rash of hate crimes and physical attacks against Protestant Christians and churches. Hate speech directed against Christians showed a marked increase, as did the linking of churches and terror organizations in media reports.
The report noted that churches faced serious terror threats and took heavy security precautions throughout 2016, even shutting down public Christmas and Easter celebrations due to safety concerns. The ability to legally establish places of worship remained problematic, as applications were routinely rejected or relegated to bureaucratic limbo, and churches were forbidden to train religious leaders or open schools to teach religious communities. In the past year, foreign religious workers and church members have been deported, denied entry, or refused resident permits in Turkey.
Which brings us back to Pastor Brunson, who remains imprisoned on false charges, and who has implored the U.S. government to “fight for me.” In a March statement from his jail cell, Brunson said:
“Will the Turkish government face no consequences for stubbornly continuing to hold an American citizen as a political prisoner? Even though I have a long public track record as a church pastor, they falsely accuse me of being a member of an Islamist terrorist group. The Turkish government has produced no proof and has rebuffed numerous attempts by the American government to secure my return to the United States. I appeal to President Trump: Please help me.”
Indeed, it appears the Trump Administration is working to secure Brunson’s release. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Norine Brunson while on a state visit to Turkey at the end of March, and Vice President Pence has given his personal assurance that Andrew’s case remains a top priority. A recent post on the Brunsons’ Facebook page said that family members are scheduled to meet with members of Congress and the U.S. State Department.
All positive developments, to be sure, but what of the next Pastor Brunson? As Turkey looses its grip on democracy, how can it hope to retain the same robust commitment to pluralism and religious freedom that its NATO allies hold? For many scholars, Turkey has long appeared to be a sturdy bridge between east and west, a case study in how democracy might take root in the Middle East. The events of 2016 seem to contradict that hope.
Since the failed coup last summer, the Erdoğan regime has detained more than 110,000 people, including scores of police officers, military personnel, judges, journalists – and at least one pastor.
“Mr. Erdoğan claims that he will use the additional powers he is being granted to solve Turkey’s not insignificant problems,” noted Clifford D. May, member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “What I think we can more realistically expect is for Turkey to become less free, less democratic and less secular.”
If May’s prediction is correct, Turkey’s Christians and other religious minorities will be at graver risk of persecution – more churches shuttered, more voices silenced, and more pastors imprisoned.