(CNSNews.com) – Ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback reportedly hopes to be in the Turkish courtroom Monday when American pastor Andrew Brunson appears on terror charges, at the start of a trial that has contributed to tensions between the two NATO allies.
The State Department in a brief statement last week announced that Brownback was traveling to Turkey as well as Bangladesh for a week beginning Friday.
The statement made no mention of Brunson, but the visit appears timed to coincide with the beginning of the trial in Izmir of the 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina. Turkey’s Hurriyet daily says Brownback has “applied to the Turkish Justice Ministry to attend the hearing.”
Brunson’s supporters say he is being persecuted for his faith by the country’s Islamist authorities.
Prosecutors are demanding a 20-year prison term for espionage and another 15 years for committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations – a reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a movement led by the U.S.-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of masterminding a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Erdogan has ignored personal appeals for Brunson’s release from President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others in the administration. Last fall he implied that Turkey could exchange Brunson for Gulen, a statement some viewed as an admission that Brunson is effectively a political hostage.
Gulen denies involvement in the coup bid, and the U.S. says it has seen insufficient evidence to extradite him.
Brunson, who lived and worked in Turkey with his wife Norine and children for more than two decades before being incarcerated in late 2016, denies any wrongdoing.
Supporters believe he is being targeted for his faith – not least of all because the indictment accuses him of “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization” of the Turkish people.
“The indictment explicitly states that the Christian faith endangers the unity of the Turkish nation, and that those who practice Christianity divide the country,” notes Gregor Puppinck, director of the Strasbourg-based European Center for Law and Justice, an affiliate of the American Center for Law and Justice, (ACLJ).
“He is being falsely accused; and in my opinion, this is because of his Christian faith,” evangelical preacher Franklin Graham said in a message Sunday to his 6.7 million Facebook followers.
“Some of his family live in the area where my father [the late Rev. Billy Graham] lived in North Carolina,” Graham said. “I know that this is very difficult, to be falsely accused in a Muslim country.”
“Please join me in lifting Pastor Brunson up in prayer, that God will protect him and give him courage and boldness as he stands before the lions.”
Last month Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline (Brunson) Furnari, appeared before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Speaking on behalf of the ECLJ, a U.N.-accredited NGO, she appealed for the HRC to make all efforts to secure her father’s release.
“I know the allegations against my father are absurd. He is not an armed terrorist trying to overthrow any government,” she said. “My father is a peaceful pastor.”
Furnari quoted from a note sent by her father several days earlier: “Let it be clear, I am in prison not for anything I have done wrong, but because of who I am – a Christian pastor. I desperately miss my wife and children. Yet, I believe this to be true:, it is an honor to suffer for Jesus Christ, as many have before me.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who visited Brunson in his Izmir prison call late last month, reported that “his health has deteriorated. He has lost 50 pounds and spends 24 hours a day in a cell with limited human contact.”
“There should be no mistake that Pastor Brunson is the victim of false accusations, and we call upon the Turkish authorities to honestly and transparently review his indictment,” Tillis said in a statement.
He said Brunson was being used as a “pawn” by elements in the Turkish government who want to undercut the longstanding bilateral partnership.
A petition by the ACLJ, which is leading advocacy in the U.S. for his release, has garnered more than half a million signatures.