Tillerson meets wife of US pastor jailed over alleged Gülen links

American pastor Andrew Craig Brunson and his wife Norine Lyn.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the wife of a jailed American pastor, Andrew Brunson in Ankara late on March 30, a State Department official said on Friday, Hurriyet reported.

“Secretary of State Tillerson wanted to make sure he met with Mrs. Brunson to share the most recent information he had on Pastor Brunson’s case,” the official said and added “The Secretary committed to staying in touch with Mrs. Brunson regarding the case moving forward,” the official said.

The pastor and his wife, Norine Lyn Brunson, were initially detained on immigration violation charges in October 2016, when they were operating a small Christian church in the western province of İzmir. Pastor Brunson who has been jailed on bogus terrorism charges in Turkey for more than five months had asked US President Donald Trump to help secure his release. “I plead with my government — with the Trump Administration — to fight for me,” Andrew Craig Brunson wrote in a letter to the Trump administration from his jail cell in the western Turkish province of İzmir.

Brunson has no known ties to terrorist groups, and the Turkish government has not produced any evidence to show that he does. Prosecutors have suggested in court hearings that Brunson is being held on suspicion of being a follower of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric living in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey’s autocratic President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has labeled Gülen a terrorist and believes he was behind a failed coup attempt in July, a charge strongly denied by Gülen.

Brunson, a North Carolina Presbyterian pastor, was profiled as “national security risk” by the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General of Migration Management which is tasked to execute Turkish government’s immigration policies. According to a document filed with the police by the İzmir branch of Migration Management on Sept.28, 2016, Brunson was flagged with a secret code of G-82, meaning that he has engaged in activities that pose national security risk for Turkey. The document asked police to initiate a removal proceedings for Brunson and his wife Norine Lyn.

Police summoned the couple with a notice on Oct.7, 2016 prompting Brunsons to report themselves to the police station. Although they voluntarily went to the police to inquire about the summon, they were detained on the spot and put in detention. While Lyn was let go, her husband was kept in detention and charged on alleged links to Gülen movement, a civic group that was inspired by teachings of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar who focuses on interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government branded Gülen, a vocal critic of Turkey’s autocratic President Erdoğan on corruption and President’s support to armed Jihadists in Syria, as terrorist on fabricated charges and launched a crackdown on his followers. The government often relies on false testimonials from secret witnesses whose identities are not revealed to even lawyers who want to investigate the witnesses’ integrity and credibility as they prepare their defense.

Erdoğan, known for his hostile opposition to any interfaith dialogue, told lawmakers during his speech in Pakistan Parliament on Nov.17, 2016 that there cannot be dialogue between Islam and Christianity. More than a dozen farcical indictments filed against Gülen in Turkey cite the Muslim cleric’s decades-long interfaith dialogue efforts worldwide as if they are criminal activities.

Rising anti-Christian and xenophobic sentiments in Turkey has been fueled by the country’s Islamist rulers who do not shy away from resorting hate speech that targeted Christians. In his usual diatribe against the UN, Erdoğan often falsely claims that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are Christian nations and laments that no Muslim country is represented in the key UN executive body.

The harsh narrative against Christians in Turkey has unfortunately taken a toll. Three Christians, including German national Tilmann Ekkehart Geske, who operated the Zirve Publishing House, which prints Bibles and other Christian literature in the southeastern city of Malatya, were brutally murdered in 2007. All the suspects except for one were released pending trial in 2014 when the prosecutors and judges involved in the case were abruptly removed by the government-controlled judicial council.

Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, who served at the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon, was shot to death on Feb. 5, 2006. Brunson also faced an armed attack on April 11, 2011 in İzmir by an assailant named Mehmet Ali Eren who is believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda in Turkey.

There has also been some speculation that the Turkish government is holding Brunson as a bargaining chip in its effort to force the US government to extradite Gülen. The Erdoğan regime has asked both the Obama and Trump administrations to deport Gülen to Turkey to face trial.

In his letter, which was given to US Embassy consular officials during a recent meeting with Brunson, the pastor calls himself a political prisoner and says that the Turkish government should face consequences for jailing him without cause.

“Will the Turkish government face no consequence for stubbornly continuing to hold an American citizen as a political prisoner?” Brunson asks in the letter, which was published by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a non-profit group helping the pastor.

Since being imprisoned on Oct. 7, the “Turkish government has produced no proof and has rebuffed numerous attempts by the American government to secure my return to the United States,” says Brunson. “In fact they are treating the US government with contempt and paying no price for it.”

“I plead with my government — with the Trump Administration — to fight for me. I ask the State Department to impose sanctions. I appeal to President Trump: please help me. Let the Turkish government know that you will not cooperate with them in any way until they release me. Please do not leave me here in prison.”

However, speaking at a joint press conference with his US counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has claimed that Brunson was not arrested for his work but upon a complaint from his translator. “The court will make a decision on him after the prosecutor completes the indictment. It is a not process that the judiciary and the police initiated themselves, but upon a complaint from his own translator. We are also waiting for the judiciary to make a decision immediately. This is not a political process, nor is it a step against the US,” Çavuşoğlu said.

Meanwhile, the ACLJ echoed Brunson’s call and stated that “The US government must take a more active role in fighting for Pastor Andrew’s release. He has done nothing wrong. He is a US citizen wrongfully imprisoned in a foreign land because of his Christian faith. He deserves to be free.”

Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to Erdoğan asking for Brunson’s release. The ACLJ also asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help Brunson. Tillerson met with Erdoğan in Ankara on Thursday, but it is not clear whether the former ExxonMobil CEO brought up Brunson’s case.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), a non-governmental organization in a special consultative status with the UN, has also said on early March 2017 that religious minorities especially Christians suffer from the crackdown by Turkish government. In a letter filed with the ECJL criticized Turkey by saying that “Turkey began a crackdown that has disappointingly swept up innocent religious minorities – especially Christians – in an ever-widening dragnet.”

“Christians and other religious minorities are now increasingly the targets of detention and deportation, and are unreasonably subjected to other governmental regulation simply because of their faith”, the letter added.

ECJL has also asked the UN’s help in securing the release of US pastor Brunson, an American citizen (48), who was arrested in Turkey’s western province İzmir on Oct.7, 2016 and is still in pre-trial detention in İzmir No.4 T-type Prison. Brunson, pastor of the İzmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant Christian community, has been living in İzmir for the last 23 years.

Brunson has appeared to be yet another victim of Turkish government’s ever-escalating witch-hunt persecution against critics and opponents in Turkey which resulted in the detention of almost 100,000 people in the last six month alone. He spent 63 days in Harmandalı Detention Center before being taken to the court for formal charges. ECJL noted that on Dec.9, 2016, Turkish court falsely charges Brunson with ‘membership in an armed terrorist organization’.

In the meantime, repeated requests by US officials to visit Pastor Brunson were ignored, his request to access to a legal counsel was denied. Authorities recorded his conversations with a lawyer after finally granting him a legal counsel when he got transferred to a prison on Dec.9. His lawyer was prevented from accessing to the case file, hampering his efforts to prepare his defense.

In its petition to the UN, ECJL stated that by jailing Brunson because of his religious expression, peaceful association, and assembly of religious believers, Turkey is violating not only its obligations under the UN Charter, but its own Constitution as well as Pastor Brunson’s fundamental rights: freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression, freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

“Therefore, these violations concern not only Turkey, but every Member State and every agency of the UN”, it added. It asked UN “to make every effort to ensure that Pastor Brunson is not only treated with great care, but that he is quickly released and allowed to return home without injury or delay.”

In February, both the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees called for the “unconditional release” of Brunson in a letter to Turkish President Erdoğan.

The letter, signed by 78 Republican and Democrat lawmakers, said “There appears to be no evidence to substantiate the charges against him for membership in an armed terrorist organization.”  It also criticized Turkish government’s denial of regular and appropriate access to legal counsel and American consular services for Brunson.

US Secretary of State Tillerson was in Ankara on Thursday to meet Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and senior government ministers for talks which focused on the conflict in neighboring Syria.

March 31, 2017

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