US President Donald Trump said the release and return of Andrew Brunson will be a “tremendous” step toward better relations between the United States and Turkey, where the Christian pastor was detained for two years.
Relations between the two NATO allies have been strained by US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defense system and the US jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.
Brunson, who met with Trump in the Oval Office soon after he arrived in Washington with his wife on Saturday, knelt next to the president in the Oval Office and said a prayer for him.
President Trump also thanked Turkey on Saturday for freeing Brunson, but he denied cutting a deal with Ankara. “I don’t make deals for hostages. There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!” Trump tweeted.
A ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesman also claimed on Saturday that Turkey’s release of Brunson was not due to any outside pressure but the result of the processes of the “independent” Turkish judiciary.
“Despite these impositions and threats” over the case, “none of the Republic of Turkey’s institutions including” the presidency took any action on the case of Brunson due to pressure, Ömer Çelik claimed in the southern province of Adana.
“At this stage, the judicial process has been completed,” he added. He rebuffed critics’ claims that Brunson was freed due to outside pressure, saying such critics had “not followed the process closely.”
Meanwhile, Trump specifically thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “for his help,” drawing a curt response from the Turkish leader, who has repeatedly said it was a court’s decision to make, not his.
“Dear Mr. President, as I always pointed out, the Turkish judiciary reached its decision independently,” Erdoğan wrote on his Twitter account. “I hope the United States and Turkey will continue their cooperation as the allies that they are, and fight together against terrorist groups.”
The dispute over Brunson brought new tension to the relationship. Trump authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August, and Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on US cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.
Turkey is in a financial crisis and its lira currency has plunged against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdoğan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.
Brunson, who lived in Turkey for 25 years, was accused of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and supporters of the Gülen movement. Brunson denied the accusations against him and Washington had demanded his immediate release.
In his tweet urging joint action against the PKK and alleged members of the Gülen movement, Erdoğan has demanded the United States extradite Turkish-Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen to face charges in Turkey.
Even as US officials celebrated Brunson’s freedom, they called on Turkey to also release a Turkish-US national and former NASA scientist in jail on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of US consulates who have also been detained.