(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s Islamist president came under fire Thursday for comments linking the fate of an incarcerated American pastor accused of espionage with the extradition of a U.S.-based Turk accused of masterminding a failed coup attempt last year.
Critics viewed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks as an effective admission that evangelical Pastor Andrew Brunson is being held hostage in a bid to compel the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an influential Islamic preacher who has lived in the U.S. since 1999.
“They say, ‘give us the pastor,’” the Hurriyet daily quoted Erdogan as saying during a speech to police graduates in Ankara. “You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one.”
Without mentioning Brunson or Gulen by name, Erdogan added that the pastor in custody in Turkey is on trial while the one in America is not, and so could be handed over easily and immediately.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who visited Turkey last December to urge justice ministry officials to free Brunson, slammed Erdogan’s remarks.
“President Erdogan’s suggestion that the U.S. should make a hostage-style prisoner swap for an innocent American imprisoned in Turkey is appalling and will not be taken seriously,” he said.
“Turkey has long been a U.S. ally, but has chosen to complicate and weaken its relationship with the U.S. and other free nations of the world through its increasingly autocratic policies.”
Lankford said the U.S. would not stand by idly, and called for Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Brunson or any other American to be barred from entering the United States.
On her Twitter feed, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Erdogan should release Brunson unconditionally, calling his detention “unjustified & inhumane.”
“Fascist Erdogan at it again,” tweeted nationally-syndicated radio talk show host Mark Levin, while Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes commented, “Translation: Brunson is now a hostage.”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president for research Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Turkey, also slammed Erdogan’s stance, tweeting, “1. Every American should know the name Andrew Brunson. 2. Every American should know Turkey's president is a thug.”
‘I can’t imagine that we would go down that road’
In a week’s time, Brunson’s family will mark the first anniversary of his imprisonment. The pastor from North Carolina had lived and worked in Turkey with his wife for more than two decades before his arrest.
He reportedly faces charges of espionage, attempting to destroy the constitutional order, and membership of a “terrorist” group – the movement headed by Gulen.
Gulen, now 76, was a close ally of Erdogan until the two had a fallout in 2013. Following last summer’s coup attempt the president launched a massive crackdown on suspected Gulen supporters and sympathizers. More than 50,000 people have been arrested 150,000 judges, teachers, soldiers and others purged.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup bid. Brunson’s Turkish lawyer has denied any link between the pastor and Gulen.
Turkey has called on the U.S. to extradite Gulen, but the State Department says it has not provided sufficient evidence.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a press briefing Thursday that “materials” provided by the Turkish government in support of extradition requests were still being evaluated.
Nauert said the U.S. continues to advocate for Brunson’s release, and that officials had visited him most recently on September 18.
“He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we’d like to see him brought home.”
Asked for the department’s view of “this kind of offer” from an ally of the U.S., Nauert replied, “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.”
An emergency order issued by Erdogan last month expanding his already considerable powers, granted him the authority to release foreign prisoners to their home countries, or exchange them for Turks held in another country.
American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) chief counsel Jay Sekulow has taken up Brunson’s case with the White House. Sekulow says he has been told that President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence raised the issue of Brunson’s release three times during meetings with Erdogan when he visited Washington in May.
A White House readout of Trump’s May 16 meeting with Erdogan said he “raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.”
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has issued a call to prayer and fasting on the weekend of October 7-8, coinciding with the anniversary of Brunson’s arrest. An ACLJ petition calling for his release has more than 350,000 signatures.