Turkey’s Erdogan wants to swap N.C. minister for ‘our pastor’, exiled rival in Pennsylvania

by WorldTribune Staff, June 20, 2018

The U.S. Senate and North Carolina’s General Assembly are calling for Turkey to release an American pastor based in Turkey who was arrested in the purges which occurred in the aftermath of the 2016 Turkish coup attempt.

Pastor Andrew Brunson, a native of Black Mountain, North Carolina, was charged with ties to a terrorist organization.

Fethullah Gulen, left, and Andrew Brunson

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican, who is pushing for Brunson’s release, said the pastor is a “political hostage,” noting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said “we can short circuit all of this by you trading your pastor for our pastor.”

Erdogan was referring to Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish opposition cleric who is currently in exile in Pennsylvania and who Erdogan accuses of planning the failed 2016 coup.

Gulen, who denies any role in engineering the coup, said he has no plans to flee the United States and would accept extradition if Washington agrees to a request by Ankara to hand him over.

Brunson is an evangelical pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church on Turkey’s west coast, a small Protestant church with about 25 congregants.

Brunson, 50, will remain in a Turkish prison until his next court hearing, scheduled for July 16, according to a spokesperson for the American Center for Law and Justice, which has taken on the pastor’s case.

Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison in Turkey.

Tillis also has sent a letter, signed by 66 senators, directly to Erdogan in support of Brunson.

“I think we sent a very clear message that we’re all watching,” Tillis said.

Tillis also attended Brunson’s last court hearing, saying that after sitting in the courtroom for 12 hours, he believes Brunson’s only crime is serving Turkey for more than 20 years as a Christian missionary.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a U.S. courtroom – the way that they conduct themselves, the flimsy circumstantial evidence,” Tillis said. “That he could keep his composure when you heard some of the things that they’re using to convict this man for 35 years in prison, basically a death sentence, was remarkable.”

Tillis believes that if Erdogan knew all the information the senator did about Brunson’s trial, he would release him.

“If you sat through 12 hours of testimony in that courtroom, as I did in that Turkish courtroom, it would be hard for me to believe that President Erdogan would draw the conclusion that this is how he wants to project Turkey on the national stage,” Tillis said.

Last week, North Carolina state legislators passed a House resolution encouraging Congress to take proactive measures to free Brunson, including possible sanctions against Turkey, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

NC Rep. Chuck McGrady said Brunson’s former home in Western North Carolina is close to his district.

“There’s got to be actions for Turkey. It seems to be more about politics,” McGrady told the News & Observer. “I want to stand up for a North Carolina citizen.”

Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, is also standing up for her father.

According to the News & Observer’s report, Furnari in a 2017 letter to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe “highlighted the milestones in her life Brunson has missed in the past two years. Furnari married with her father’s blessings, but said she was holding off on the wedding until he could walk her down the aisle. Brunson missed seeing her graduate from UNC in December 2017.”

“Turkey has been home to my family. It felt like shock and betrayal,” Furnari said in an interview from Texas, where she now lives.

Before her father’s arrest, Furnari said in her letter, deportation had been seen as the worst-case scenario for non-Turkish Christian pastors, the News & Observer report said.

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