At a recent Washington hearing on the state of religious freedom in Turkey, the Evangelical Presbyterian pastor whose long incarceration for allegedly plotting against the government became a flash point in relations between Ankara and Washington, Mr. Brunson joked, “I think you have several experts on Turkey here today. I’m probably the only one who’s an expert on Turkish prisons.”
But it was no laughing matter as Mr. Brunson and others addressed the state of freedom of belief at last week’s hearing before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Rights groups and religious freedom advocates have expressed mounting alarm over the state of civil liberties under the increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a country in which more than 99% of the population is Muslim. Mr. Brunson said the trend in Turkey is not promising.
“There is still a high degree of freedom for Christians relative to other Muslim countries in the region, but I am concerned that all the signs point to this changing very soon,” he said.
Mr. Brunson, who still professes a love for Turkey and its people, was arrested in October 2016 alongside tens of thousands of Turkish citizens, educators, military personnel, academics and journalists during a failed coup to overthrow the Erdogan government.
Mr. Erdogan and his government pronounced the coup leaders to be linked to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric, head of a broad social and culture movement, and a onetime ally of Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Gulen now lives in Pennsylvania after the two men bitterly quarreled and Ankara denounced his movement as a terrorist organization.
Accused of working with both the Gulenists and with Kurdish separatist groups, the North Carolina-born Mr. Brunson spent a year in prison as the Trump administration negotiated his release and increased economic sanctions and tariffs. With President Trump taking a personal interest in the case, the pastor was convicted of aiding terrorism in a Turkish court, but sentenced to the time he had already served and was allowed to return to the U.S. almost immediately.
After the hearing, Mr. Brunson told The Washington Times in an interview that he and his small Izmir Resurrection Church never tried to get involved in Turkish domestic politics. His only mission: to plant churches and tell people about Jesus Christ.
“I’ve never been involved in political issues in Turkey. I don’t want to be involved in them now,” he said. “I’m interested in the political side of Turkey in that the regime there has taken Turkey in a very different direction than it was before and it has become very oppressive.”
He told the USCIRF hearing that he, his wife, and over 50 other Protestant families are now banned from the country.
“The foreigners targeted for deportation are ministers and pastors, they are not dentists or engineers,” he said.
Mr. Brunson also said during the hearing that the Erdogan government has become an “exporter of radical Islam.” When asked about his comment he said he was not using language as carefully or “scholarly” as the other panelists.
“What I mean by that is, Turkey has become a supporter of a more radical Islam,” Mr. Brunson said. “I’m not saying that they’re supporting a bunch of terror groups, but they’re trying to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. And so they’ve taken many steps to export their version of Islam.”
“I love Turkey. I love the Turkish people. And I want there to be freedom in Turkey for the people to choose whatever path they want to follow,” he said. “My criticisms are more of the Turkish government and the environment that they have created.”
The 51-year-old pastor’s case attracted wide support in the U.S. during his time in prison. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, representing Mr. Brunson’s home state of North Carolina, visited him in the Turkish prison. Mr. Tillis told the hearing that Mr. Brunson will be the guest chaplain opening the session of the Senate on October 15, almost a year to the day after his release.
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