United Nations told Christians in Turkey under crackdown

American pastor Andrew Craig Brunson and his wife Norine Lyn.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), a non-governmental organization in a special consultative status with the UN, has said religious minorities especially Christians suffer from the crackdown by Turkish government.

In a letter filed with the United Nations (UN), 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 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 appears 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.

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 Recep Tayip 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.

The same pattern is also detected in Brunson’s case. According to a report by Hurriyet daily on Dec.9, 2016, a testimonial by a secret witness against the US pastor incorporated in the case. He was accused of being conducting a missionary work in Turkey, and receiving a foreign funding.

Yeni Asır, a daily controlled by Erdoğan’s family, went as far as claiming that Brunson has been preaching to dismember Turkey, and supported members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group listed as terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. The report, run on the front page on Dec.14, 2016 also claimed Pastor Brunson especially cared about Syrian refugees coming to Turkey via Kobane and Suruç crossing points.

The daily further wrote Brunson praised Gülen movement in his talks with church leaders.

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.

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.

The American Center for Law and Justice, an affiliate of ECJL, has also been working to secure the release of Brunson from Turkish jail.

March 3, 2017

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