Trump Calls Incarcerated American Pastor a ‘Hostage,’ Urges Turkey’s Erdogan to Act

Patrick Goodenough | July 19, 2018 | 4:33am EDT
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American pastor Andrew Brunson, photographed with his wife Norine, has been imprisoned in Turkey since October 2016. (Photo: Facebook)

( – President Trump has tweeted again in support of an American pastor on trial in Turkey on terrorism and espionage-related charges, this time using the term “hostage” and urging Turkey’s Islamist president by name to “do something.”

Trump’s message Wednesday night was posted on the day a court in Izmir again ruled that Andrew Brunson should return to prison pending a next appearance, despite recent optimism that his third appearance could see him released on bail.

By the time the trial resumes on October 12, the 50-year-old North Carolina native will have been incarcerated for two years and five days in a country that is purportedly a NATO ally.

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison,” Trump tweeted. “He has been held hostage far too long.”

Using Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Twitter handle, the president continued, “@RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”

Trump tweeted once before in support of Brunson – when the trial began last April – saying on that occasion that he was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” and adding, “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is.”

Trump has also taken up the case with Erdogan personally, as has Vice President Mike Pence.

The trial is taking place in a country whose autocratic president has overseen a mass crackdown on thousands accused of links to a failed July 2016 coup or sympathies with the man Erdogan accuses of being responsible, U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen.

Brunson, who pastored in Turkey for more than 22 years before his arrest in October 2016, is accused of supporting Gulen.

Trump’s use in Wednesday’s tweet of the term “hostage” is significant. Last fall Erdogan suggested that Turkey could release Brunson in exchange for the U.S. handing over Gulen.

That prompted critics to accuse the Turkish leader of holding the American as a hostage in a bid to force the U.S. to extradite Gulen.

Brunson is also accused of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and of using “Christianization” to divide Turks – adding a religious freedom element to the case.

He has denied all of the charges, and the State Department says he’s innocent.

“The case against him is built on anonymous sources, accusations, and a lot of speculation,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday, calling on the Turkish government “to quickly resolve his case in a timely and transparent and fair manner,” and to release him.

‘Miscarriage of justice’

The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Ankara since John Bass left last October to take up the ambassador’s post in Afghanistan. His departure came amid a diplomatic crisis over the detention of U.S. mission staff accused of links to the coup, which prompted the embassy to suspend visa services.

The interim head of mission, charge d’affaires, Philip Kosnett, attended Wednesday’s court hearing, and told reporters outside that “the sooner Andrew Brunson can be reunited with his family the sooner we can start focusing on other issues in the [U.S.-Turkey] relationship.”

Also attending was Kristina Arriaga, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

“Today I was hoping to see the judge order his complete release and put an end to the miscarriage of justice that Pastor Brunson’s entire case represents,” she said afterwards. “Turkish authorities still have not provided one good reason for depriving Pastor Brunson of his liberties.”

Arriaga urged the administration and Congress to continue to apply pressure, including applying targeted sanctions against the officials concerned.

Turkey’s treatment of Brunson has sparked initiatives in Congress designed to punish Ankara with sanctions against senior officials, and efforts to prevent Turkey from taking possession of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.

“Turkey and the United States are longstanding NATO allies and it is imperative to the interests of both nations that Turkey starts behaving like one,” four senators leading the push – Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) – said in a statement Wednesday.

They called on the administration to “use all the tools at their disposal to ensure the release” of Brunson and other American citizens held in Turkey, “before Congress is forced to press for even stricter legislative measures that will be difficult to unwind.”

In a Facebook post Brunson’s wife, Norine, wrote that she knows her husband’s “heart must be broken tonight, again.”

She quoted Brunson as having said in court, “It is a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ. Blessed am I, as I suffer for him. Blessed am I, as I am slandered. Blessed am I, as I am being lied about. Blessed am I, as I am imprisoned. Blessed am I, as I share his suffering.”

“I am incredibly proud of him as I am quite sure he doesn't feel that blessing at this point,” Norine Brunson added. “There have been many prayers for the legal side of things, but let’s just pray for a miraculous release.”

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