(CNSNews.com) – President Trump expressed hope on Tuesday night that Turkey’s Islamist government would release the “persecuted” U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, rejecting prosecutors’ accusations of espionage against the North Carolina native.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” the president tweeted.
“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”
Brunson, who has been in custody since his arrest in October 2016, appeared in court in Izmir for the first time on Monday, and denied the charges against him.
Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of up to 35 years’ imprisonment – 20 years for espionage and another 15 years for committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations.
“I haven’t done anything against Turkey,” the 50-year-old told the court. “On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
The judge ordered that he remain in custody, with the trial postponed to May 7.
The 62-page indictment against Brunson, an evangelical pastor who has lived and worked in Turkey with his family for more than 22 years, accuses him among other things of “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization” of the Turkish people.
Trump last year raised Brunson’s case directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to no avail. Erdogan has linked the pastor’s fate to the U.S. handover of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Gulen’s movement is one of two “terrorist” organizations Brunson is accused of supporting. He told the court it was insult to suggest that he, as a Christian, would support an Islamic movement.
(Gulen denies any involvement in the abortive coup attempt, and the U.S. government says Ankara has provided insufficient evidence to justify his extradition.)
The Turkish government responded to the coup bid with mass purges of civil servants and the arrests of tens of thousands of people over supposed links to the plot and to Gulen. Among those caught up in the crackdown were Brunson and several U.S. consular employees.
The other group Brunson is accused of helping is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a lengthy separatist campaign against the Turkish state, and is designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.
Monday’s court hearing was attended by Sam Brownback, the former Kansas governor who now serves as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Brownback told reporters at the court that the relationship between the two NATO allies “is going to have difficulty in moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated.”
He described Brunson’s plight as “a religious freedom case.”
“The entire U.S. government is following Mr. Brunson’s case closely,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement. “We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent.”
“We believe that Turkey is a state bound by the rule of law, and we have faith in the Turkish people's commitment to justice. We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair, and transparent manner.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory watchdog, voiced dismay at the outcome of Monday’s hearing, and called for a tougher U.S. response.
“Pastor Brunson is an innocent religious leader whose imprisonment for over 18 months on false allegations is an abomination,” said USCIRF chairman Daniel Mark.
Mark said the latest development was yet another reason for international condemnation of his imprisonment, “and for Congress and the administration to consider stronger steps against Turkey, including the imposition of targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice.”
Earlier this year Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) called on the administration to impose sanctions against Turkish officials over the Brunson case, under the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows for punitive measures against human rights abusers globally.
On Monday, Lankford in a statement said the trial was “further proof of the deteriorating relationship between our two countries. If Turkey does not release Dr. Andrew Brunson, Congress stands ready to take necessary and appropriate action.”