US senator introduces resolution for sanctions against Turkey over religious freedom violations

Fethullah Gülen (L) and Andrew Brunson.

US Senator from Mississippi and Helsinki Commission Chairman Roger Wicker introduced a bipartisan resolution on Tuesday urging US President Donald Trump to take action against seven countries, including Turkey, for what it described as violations of religious freedom, according to a report by the Hürriyet Daily News.

“Our founding fathers made religious freedom a cornerstone of our country, and President Trump carries that legacy forward by making religious freedom a cornerstone of his presidency. This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts,” said Wicker in a US Helsinki Commission press release on Monday.

“Designate Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey as ‘Special Watch List Countries’ for severe violations of religious freedom, and designate Kazakhstan if it continues to tighten restrictions on religious freedom,” S.Res.539 read, calling for sanctioning Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been jailed in Turkey since October 2016.

The resolution also calls for the re-designation of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern,” asking the president to block entry to the US and impose property blocking sanctions on individual violators in all seven countries, as well as Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine.

Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.539 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, along with Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma.

Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, was indicted on charges of helping the Gülen movement. Brunson denied allegations of any links to the movement as he went on trial in a case that has fuelled tensions between the Turkish government and the Trump administration.

“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 in April, 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.

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.

Brunson 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 movement or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The US State Department had 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.

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