US Pastor Brunson denies allegations of links with Gülen movement as his trial begins in Turkey

Fethullah Gülen (L) and Andrew Brunson.

US Pastor Andrew Brunson on Monday denied allegations of any links to the Gülen movement as he went on trial in a case that has fuelled tensions between the Turkish government and the Trump administration.

Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, was indicted on charges of helping the Gülen movement, which the Turkish government holds responsible for a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

Tight security measures were in place in the courtroom in the western city of İzmir. A group of US senators arrived in İzmir for the hearing, the pro-government NTV said.

“I’ve never done anything against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want the truth to come out,” Brunson told the court in Aliağa, north of the Aegean city of İzmir.

“I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities,” Brunson said, wearing a white shirt and black suit and making his defence in Turkish, according to a report by Reuters. His wife was in the courtroom as were North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis and US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.

According to a report by the pro-government Hürriyet daily, Brunson burst into tears during the hearing. Brunson, who broke down before telling the court that he was in a one-person cell and suffering psychologically, said he was taking medication to treat his condition and had asked to be transferred out of solitary confinement.

The trial of the US cleric is being heard by the İzmir 2nd High Criminal Court. Brunson’s lawyer Cem Halavurt has called the charges against his client “totally unfounded” and said they are based on the testimony of secret informants. Halavurt told Agence France-Presse ahead of the hearing that his client was “both nervous, but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and hope.”

The relationship between the United States and Turkey is likely to come under pressure as long as Brunson remains in jail, said US Ambassador Sam Brownback on Monday. “The United States cares deeply about our relationship with Turkey,” Brownback told reporters during a recess in proceedings and added, “That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated.”

The judge ordered Brunson to stay in jail, setting the next hearing for May 7. The ruling was based on evidence given by witnesses in the case and the risk that Brunson might flee.

The United States expressed concern. “We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair and transparent manner.”

“We are very disappointed. If anything, I think the information that has been presented today creates a more compelling reason why he is innocent,” Senator Thom Tillis told reporters after the ruling.

Brunson reacted with emotion, telling his wife Norine in English: “I am going crazy. I love you.” He had earlier told the judge tearfully: “I want to return my home. For 16 months, I have been separated from my wife.”

Brunson faces two sentences of 15 and 20 years in prison if convicted. The Turkish government accuses Brunson of gathering intelligence using his religious work as a cover and working to convert Kurds to Christianity to “divide” the country.

He was originally charged with membership in the Gülen movement and faced life imprisonment. The latest indictment explicitly states he is not charged with being a member of the Gülen movement or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The US State Department has called on Turkey to release Brunson, and 37 US senators and 78 members of the US House of Representatives signed a letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanding his unconditional release.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a US conservative Christian group lobbying for Brunson’s release, has called him a “hostage of the Turkish government.” Half a million people have signed a petition calling for Brunson’s release, stating that the case was putting Christianity on trial. US President Donald Trump has also asked Ankara to “expeditiously” return the pastor to the United States.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases that have damaged ties between Turkey and the United States. The two countries are also at odds over Washington’s support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.

The trial further increases tensions between Turkey and the US — two NATO allies. In the Syria conflict, the United States has backed fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.

Washington has called for Brunson’s release while Turkish President Erdoğan suggested last year the pastor’s fate could be linked to that of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the controversial coup attempt.

Erdoğan referred to Washington in a speech to police officers last year in which he said: “Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gülen] to us. … Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you. The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can easily give him to us. You can hand him over right away.”

The idea of a swap was brushed off by Washington. US officials have said that Turkish government has failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify Gülen’s extradition, raising frustration in Erdoğan’s autocratic regime in Ankara.

A case study by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) in August 2017 revealed that hatred towards Christian minority groups in Turkey and xenophobic euphoria against Christians in general are being fueled in an unprecedented campaign led by Turkey’s rulers, especially the country’s authoritarian leader, Erdoğan.

The report underlined that Erdoğan, who often spews hate speech against Christians, particularly the Vatican, continues to stigmatize millions of people in Turkey and around the world with his systematic and deliberate campaign of fomenting hostility against Christians. His propaganda machine amplifies this hateful narrative, and the mass media under Erdoğan’s control spreads it further to a larger audience.

SCF reviewed Erdoğan’s public speeches delivered in recent years to uncover a pattern as well as campaigns run by his associates in politics and the media. The Turkish president openly ruled out interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity, branded the European Union a group of infidels led by the pope and even accused the United Nations Security Council of representing only Christian nations.

The unrelenting attacks against the Holy See, and especially the pope, often occurred when Erdoğan bashed and tried to bully his opponents, whether Fethullah Gülen or countries like Germany and the Netherlands where he was prevented from running political campaigns there for diaspora Turks.

Turkey survived coup attempt a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and other civil servants since July 2016. Turkey’s interior minister announced on December 12, 2017 that 55,665 people have been arrested. On December 13, the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

A total of 48,305 people were arrested by courts across Turkey in 2017 over their alleged links to the Gülen movement, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Dec. 2, 2017. “The number of detentions is nearly three times higher,” Soylu told a security meeting in İstanbul and claimed that “even these figures are not enough to reveal the severity of the issue.

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