The case documentation, seen by an attorney assigned to the case but not publicly identified, provides no evidence to back up the charges, nor does it say which terrorist organization Brunson is allegedly part of. The attorney, who is Turkish, has been allowed only limited visits.
Brunson currently is the only American Christian imprisoned, but several others like Keating face deportation. Brunson faces “a serious, yet completely unfounded, charge,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the U.S. legal advocacy firm helping to navigate the case. Norine, who remains in Turkey, referred my request for an interview to ACLJ, and the group responded with a written statement by Sekulow.
Authorities for the first time allowed Norine to visit her husband on Dec. 28. She posted a photo of the sprawling prison facility on Facebook and said she found her husband “very down and discouraged.” He did not know his wife was still in the country, she said, and her letters to him had been withheld. The next day, a court denied Brunson’s appeal of the terrorism charges—which could carry serious penalties. Brunson, denied most mail and all books, has been held in a small room lined with bunk beds along with 11 other Muslim male prisoners. This month the number in the same room grew to 20 prisoners, leaving almost no space to walk, according to his wife’s Facebook post. “Day after day is empty and long,” she said.
“Christians in general and Protestants in particular are really at the top of the government’s list of targets,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament.
“Christians in general and Protestants in particular are really at the top of the government’s list of targets”
Erdemir believes “scapegoating religious minorities” is essential to the crackdown. Targeting Protestants fits with a campaign that “is anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Christian.”
Erdemir, who left Parliament in 2015, said the pace of change in his homeland “is surreal.” That year he attended Easter services at St. Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. In early 2016, the government expropriated the church and its property, along with five other historical congregations in the city, and St. Giragos was nearly destroyed in fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants. The confiscations and destruction went little noted before the coup attempt.
Authorities also have closed the Church of St. Peter in Antakya, a church visited by the Apostle Paul and Barnabas, according to the book of Acts, and where believers in Jesus Christ were first called Christians. The cavernous church, built into a mountainside overlooking the city (once Antioch) is a popular tourist destination in addition to holding active services.
The crackdown has drawn a muted response from the Obama administration and European officials. Neither Barack Obama as president nor State Department officials have made public statements challenging Brunson’s arrest, and in Obama’s final six months in office, the administration has made little of Turkey’s state-of-emergency procedures.
Representatives for Brunson have met with U.S. officials and Turkish diplomats in Washington. But Keating said he contacted the U.S. Embassy in Ankara following his deportation and never received a response. “It would have been nice to hear from them,” he said.
Erdemir believes Western attempts to appease Erdogan or downplay the crisis have been disastrous: “Erdogan’s relations with the U.S. and the EU have deteriorated precisely because he’s lost respect for them. If you see your counterpart as an equal, you will be more demanding. You won’t look the other way while it is transgressing. Erdogan sees appeasement as a form of disrespect.”
Left unchallenged, Turkey’s continued anti-Western policies will threaten the NATO alliance and other partnerships. In addition to NATO, Turkey is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, which includes the European Court of Human Rights.
“It’s appalling that a country so firmly entrenched in the transatlantic world could have so quickly become anti-Western,” said Erdemir.
A new Trump administration, he said, should “engage Turkey as a genuine partner in the transatlantic alliance, and hold it to transatlantic values.”
Christianity has a long history in Turkey. The seven churches of Revelation were located within its modern-day boundaries, and much of Paul’s missionary journeys were centered in what was then Asia Minor. The Council of Nicaea met near modern-day Iznik in A.D. 325 to establish one of the earliest church creeds. Constantinople, long the seat of Eastern Christianity, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, ending Christian domination over the area and ushering in an Islamic caliphate with the city, as Istanbul, its stronghold.
“Turkey’s transformation from guardian of Christendom to unevangelized nation has been almost comprehensive,” notes Operation World in its 2010 prayer guide. The country’s evangelical community, seemingly obliterated by 1960, has more than tripled in the last 20 years and is believed to number about 7,000 people (out of a population of 80 million). But American workers detained or expelled in the last year, along with forcible church closures and harassment of local pastors, could again squeeze out Protestants.
Keating isn’t giving up on his long dedication to Turkey. He said there is “good precedence” for being hopeful a lifetime ban on his entering the country may be lifted. And he believes Turks deserve religious options: “Religious freedom is a component of human rights, and people ought to be free to make religious choices.”