(Update: The State Department said Friday that in his conversation with Cavusoglu, Pompeo "underscored that it is well past time for this innocent Pastor Andrew Brunson to come home.")
(CNSNews.com) – Turkey on Thursday sharply criticized President Trump’s threats to impose sanctions unless it releases an American pastor on trial for espionage and terrorism, saying it would “never tolerate threats from anybody” and urging the U.S. to “review its manners.”
“No one dictates Turkey,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted in response to Trump’s earlier tweet. “We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”
There was no immediate response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is attending a BRICS summit in South Africa, but the Anadolu state news agency quoted his spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, as saying the Trump administration should “review its manners immediately” before ties between the NATO allies deteriorate further.
“No one can give orders to Turkey and threaten our country,” foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said. “The rhetoric of threat against Turkey is unacceptable.”
Anadolu later reported, citing diplomatic sources, that Cavusoglu had spoken to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by phone.
In response to queries, a State Department official confirmed only that Pompeo had spoken with his Turkish counterpart.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday both warned Turkey that it could face sanctions unless Pastor Andrew Brunson – whom Turkish prosecutors want sentenced to a 35-year jail term – is released.
“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” Trump tweeted. “He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
During remarks at the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the vice president called on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by name to free Brunson “or be prepared to face the consequences,” in the form of “significant sanctions.”
Turkey’s treatment of the evangelical pastor has been a simmering irritant in relations between the two NATO allies, but took a new turn when a court in Izmir last week once again refused to release him on bail, prompting a Trump tweet describing Brunson as a “hostage” and urging Erdogan to act.
On Wednesday, the court ordered his transfer from prison to house arrest, citing “health problems.” He has been incarcerated since October 2016, charged with offenses including supporting Turkey’s most-wanted man, the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
Pence in his speech called the transfer from prison “a welcome first step” but said it was “not good enough.”
Turkey’s Islamist government has argued that it does not and cannot interfere with the independent courts. Anadolu described Trump’s tweet as “an attempt to interfere with NATO-member Turkey's judiciary.”
But Brunson is widely seen as a victim of Erdogan’s wider campaign targeting Gulen, who was once a close ally of Erdogan but is now regarded as a bitter foe.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of masterminding a failed coup in July 2016 and has been demanding that the U.S. extradite him. Gulen denies responsibility and the U.S. says Turkey has not provided sufficient evidence to support the extradition bid.
Following the coup attempt Erdogan launched a massive crackdown which saw some 50,000 arrests and a purge of 150,000 judges, teachers, soldiers and others. Brunson, who after working and living in Turkey for more than two decades was caught up in the post-coup sweep, denies supporting Gulen.
He has also denied other charges, including supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and charges of “dividing and separating” Turkey by spreading the Christian gospel.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson is an innocent man,” Pence said. “There is no credible evidence against him.”
Trump’s recent use of the word “hostage” to describe the pastor alludes to Erdogan’s suggestion last fall that his government could consider swapping Brunson for Gulen.
Erdogan’s spokesman Kalin complained Thursday that the U.S. “has never taken a step against” Gulen’s movement.
The administration, he said, “should know that it cannot get any result by threatening Turkey using a matter, which is being handled by the independent Turkish judiciary, as an excuse.”
U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, told reporters after the ministerial at the State Department that he believed the prospects for Brunson returning home were “excellent.”
He noted interventions and pressure over months from Trump, Pence, Pompeo, himself, and members of Congress: “This has continued to build and build and build.”
Among congressional measures underway is an effort to prevent Turkey from taking possession of U.S.-built F-35 fighter jets – an initiative driven both by the Brunson affair and concerns about Erdogan’s planned purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
The National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision suspending delivery of the fighters pending a report on U.S.-Turkey relations.
The NDAA was passed by the House on Thursday after weeks of negotiations between House and Senate members.