Thursday, December 15, 2016

Family fights for release of US pastor jailed in Turkey on terrorism charges

The family of a U.S pastor imprisoned in Turkey launched a campaign Wednesday for his release, saying the North Carolina native is being held on false terrorism-related charges and that his life is in danger.
Andrew Brunson, 48, pastor of a Protestant church in Izmir, was locked up Friday after first being detained in October. The government accuses him of having ties to an American-based cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for a July coup attempt.
"The government of Turkey -- led by an Islamic party -- has begun increased crackdowns on Christians, and Pastor Andrew, if convicted, may face years in prison based on extremely serious -- and false -- charges," said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing Brunson's family.
Brunson and his wife, Norine -- originally from Black Mountain, N.C. -- have lived in Turkey for 23 years, running a Christian church with the full knowledge of local authorities, according to the ACLJ.
On Wednesday, after weeks of silence, the family called the charges against Brunson "unfounded" and "shocking" and demanded his immediate release. 
"Andrew’s strong faith has always been at the center of his life and that has never been more evident than his pastorship in Turkey," his family said in a statement. "His love and concern for the people of Turkey is unmistakable, as he has dedicated 23 years of his life serving them."
Brunson was summoned to a local police station in Izmir on Oct. 7. According to the family, Brunson, a U.S. citizen, thought he would be receiving a long-awaited permanent residence card. Instead, Brunson was told he was being deported because he was a "threat to national security."
Brunson was arrested and fingerprinted while awaiting deportation. Officials confiscated personal items, including his phone, and denied him access to a Bible. They also prevented him from consulting an attorney and kept him in isolation for a period of time.
But Brunson's ordeal would soon take a dark turn.  
On Friday, after 63 days in captivity, Brunson was taken to a counter-terrorism center in Izmir. After further questioning, he was charged with "membership in an armed terrorist organization," and a judge ordered he be imprisoned instead of deported.
Lawyers for the ACLJ told Wednesday that the charging documents include no evidence to support claims the man broke any law. If convicted of such terrorism charges, Brunson could face years of imprisonment.
"We are launching a global campaign to call attention to his plight demanding that Turkey – a NATO member – release Pastor Andrew without delay," Sekulow said. 
The family said the U.S. State Department as well as a member of Congress have been quietly negotiating his release over the last several weeks.
"We have seen reports of U.S. citizens in Turkey being detained and deported," a U.S. State Department official told Tuesday, though the official did not mention Brunson by name, citing privacy concerns."
"The Department of State takes its obligation to assist U.S. citizens arrested abroad seriously. When a U.S. citizen is detained overseas, we seek to visit as soon as possible and to provide appropriate consular services," the official said.
The Brunsons, with help from the ACLJ, launched a global campaign Wednesday to raise awareness of the pastor's plight and pressure the U.S. government as well as the United Nations and NATO countries to act on his behalf. Turkey is a member of NATO. An online petition is also being circulated to help secure Brunson's release. 

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