USCIRF condemns indictment against American Pastor Andrew Brunson

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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Tuesday issued a statement condemning an indictment filed by a Turkish prosecutor charging US citizen Andrew Brunson, a Protestant pastor who has lived in Turkey for 23 years leading a small Christian church in İzmir, with acquiring secret political and military information, attempting to destroy the constitutional order and overthrow the Turkish government.

“USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the administration to redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson’s release. No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American. We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice,” said USCIRF Vice Chairs Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga.

Brunson has been jailed since 2016 due to alleged ties to the faith-based Gülen movement, which the Turkish government accuses of masterminding a failed coup in July of the same year.

Brunson and his wife, Norine, were detained on what was claimed to be immigration violations in October 2016. Mrs. Brunson was released, but the cleric remained in custody and soon saw his charges upgraded to terrorism. Prosecutors have suggested in court hearings that Brunson is being held on suspicion of being a follower of US-based Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the Gülen movement and whose extradition from the US the Turkish government has long been seeking.

During a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara in September, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “They want a pastor [Andrew Brunson] from us, you have a pastor [Fethullah Gülen], too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him.”

Then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month called for Brunson’s release during a visit to Turkey, saying, “We call upon Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other US citizens who we believe are being unjustly detained.”

The full statement issued by the USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission that reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress, is as follows:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) strongly condemns a new indictment issued by Turkish prosecutors this week charging Pastor Andrew Brunson with “leadership in a terrorist organization” and seeking a possible life sentence in his case. Pastor Brunson is an American citizen and the leader of a small Protestant Christian church in the city of Izmir, Turkey, where he has served for over 22 years. He was detained on October 7, 2016 and accused by Turkish officials of membership in an armed terrorist organization, though official charges have not yet been released to the public.

“USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the administration to redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson’s release. No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American. We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice,” said USCIRF Vice Chairs Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga.

On March 9, Pastor Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling the allegations against her father “absurd” and noting that her family “has suffered greatly during the past year and half.” High level U.S. officials, including President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have called for Pastor Brunson’s release, including most recently by Secretary Tillerson during a visit to Ankara last month.

On October 5, 2017, USCIRF Vice Chairs Jolley and Arriaga were granted access to Kiriklar Prison in Izmir and allowed to visit with Pastor Brunson. They were his first visitors outside of family, legal counsel, and U.S. embassy officials. They described their visit in an opinion editorial for Religion News Service, which can be found here.

“USCIRF is appalled that Turkish officials are seeking a possible life sentence for Pastor Brunson and are accusing him of leadership in a terrorist organization. The government of Turkey has detained Pastor Brunson largely based on a purported ‘secret witness’ and secret evidence which they refuse to make public. The Turkish government should reverse course immediately and we urge the international community to condemn this indictment,” continued Vice Chairs Jolley and Arriaga.

In 2017, USCIRF placed Turkey on its Tier 2 for violations of religious freedom and began advocating for Pastor Brunson as a part of its Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.

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