(CNSNews.com) -- Advocates of religious freedom celebrated Christian Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release from Turkish custody on Friday morning, following his nearly two-year imprisonment on false espionage and terrorism charges.
Pastor Brunson’s release was a “really great result,” said Family Research Council (FRC) Vice President for Policy Travis Weber during a conference call on Friday.
Weber, who was present for Brunson’s hearing in the Turkish court, spoke to CNSNews.com from Izmir, Turkey. He stressed that although Brunson was found guilty, his homecoming is “what we’re celebrating today.”
He also emphasized the necessity of protecting religious freedom.
“Christians should support religious freedom in society for all people of all faiths,” he said.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years as the pastor of the Izmir Diriliş (Resurrection) Church, was arrested in October 2016 on the charges of “support of a terrorist organization” and “political or military espionage,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Brunson was accused of aiding the Gülen movement, according to USCIRF. The Gülen movement is an Islamic movement that allegedly planned a failed coup in July 2016 and that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan views as a terrorist organization.
After his lengthy ordeal, Brunson is now on a flight home to the United States, according to a source associated with the case.
FRC President Tony Perkins released a statement thanking the Trump administration for its efforts in securing Brunson’s freedom.
“The prayers of thousands were answered today when Pastor Brunson was released by the Turkish government and told he could go home to the United States,” said Perkins. “Those prayers, combined with the unwavering resolve of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback, brought tangible help to Pastor Brunson and hope to those around the globe who are being persecuted because of their faith.”
Perkins is a Commissioner of USCIRF, which is an independent and bipartisan government commission established to defend religious freedom.
According to its website, the USCIRF “reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.”
President Trump celebrated Brunson’s release with a tweet.
“PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!” he wrote.
Weber praised the Trump administration for its role in securing Brunson’s release through the use of sanctions against two high-ranking Turkish officials, and tariffs which Weber says have “affected the Turkish economy.”
“Many, many people worked on this case,” he said.
According to Weber, President Trump sanctioned the Turkish officials under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the president to impose sanctions on any foreign person who has committed a human rights violation.
Weber pointed out the role of public attention, especially from “religious freedom advocates,” in encouraging the Trump administration to take action in Brunson’s case.
“As the case gained traction in the U.S., the administration began highlighting it very publicly,” Weber said.
Weber described highlights from the hearing, which “spanned several hours.” One major development was the presence of new witnesses.
“New witnesses were brought forth that contradicted previous witnesses and testimony,” he said, adding that a defense witness was allowed to testify for the first time.
Weber said that when asked to respond to statements from witnesses during the hearing, Brunson’s statements “were rather short” and reaffirmed his innocence of the charges.
“He has always maintained his innocence in this,” Weber said.
Weber said he did not know what would happen to the sanctions on Turkey now that Brunson has been released, but said he expected “some sort of resolution.”
“I expect there’ll be some sort of resolution to that,” he said.