Çavuşoğlu stated: “During this process, we have assisted him in accessing the consulate, meeting his family, private talks with his wife, and providing books that he wanted, including the Bible. We will continue to do so. The court will make a decision on him after the prosecutor completes the indictment. It is not a process that the judiciary and the police initiated themselves, but upon a complaint from his own translator. We are also waiting for the judiciary to make a decision immediately. This is not a political process, nor is it a step against the U.S.”
For his part, Tillerson “wanted to make sure he met with Mrs. Brunson to share the most recent information he had on Pastor Brunson’s case,” an unidentified State Department official told the Reuters news service. “The secretary committed to staying in touch with Mrs. Brunson regarding the case moving forward,” the official said.
The day after the joint press conference and Tillerson’s meeting with Brunson’s wife, at least seven Turkish news outlets, including the patrician English-language Hürriyet Daily News, carried stories about the case.
“I think this is a good step in the right direction,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and now senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Erdogan has released some journalists and others who have been jailed for months in the run-up to this month’s referendum, Erdemir said: “This really is the right time to pressure Ankara.”
Asked what it might take to secure Brunson’s release, the former opposition politician said: “There should be no carrot! It is clear that a U.S. pastor is framed and imprisoned on bogus charges, and with little or no due process, and this is embarrassing for Turkey, a NATO ally. Ankara should release Pastor Brunson, not because it will get something in return, but to save itself from embarrassment.”
ANOTHER ANALYST IN TURKEY, who is not identified due to the ongoing threats to security for those making public statements, said, “At this point both local and expat Christians remain unsure how this case is going to impact the church here, short- or long-term.”
Erdogan has sought to increase his authority and silence perceived opponents since facing down a coup attempt last summer. The president blamed the attempted ouster on a movement started by onetime ally Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim leader living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania. Erdogan declared a state of emergency following the coup attempt, and his regime subsequently has arrested tens of thousands of civilians—including teachers, police, public officials, and religious leaders.
Adding to the pressure to restrict freedoms: the war next door in Syria, where Turkey has taken an active military role plus a hard line publicly against ISIS, or Islamic State. Nearly 3 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Turkey.
The Pentagon angered the Erdogan government a month ago when it sent additional troops to Syria-Turkey border areas to train and serve alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led rebel coalition Erdogan opposes. Despite the serious strains, Tillerson reiterated a strong U.S.-Turkey relationship, saying “there is no space” between Turkey and the United States in a mutual commitment to defeat ISIS.
Protests and propaganda were ramping up ahead of the April 16 referendum, which promises to drastically expand the powers of the presidency and end Turkey’s parliamentary system. Under it, the president—not Parliament—would appoint Cabinet ministers and the president would appoint two-thirds of the country’s senior judges. The president could pass certain laws by decree and use a state of emergency to dissolve Parliament. With opponents referring to the measure as “democide,” Erdogan has banked on international voting among a large Turkish diaspora, where early balloting began outside Turkey April 5. In the Netherlands, for example, 250,000 dual citizens of Turkish descent are eligible to vote, but Dutch and German officials have been vocal in opposing the referendum.
While the government’s future remains uncertain and Brunson continues in prison, his church faces a deadline: The landlord for the rented space in Izmir, nervous over the high-profile case, has asked the congregation to vacate the building by the end of April. Norine Brunson and others, in turn, have launched a campaign (including a GoFundMe web page) to purchase the building so the congregation may use it permanently.
The church’s current location, say congregants, is ideal, a two-story yellow building fronting a central street with many pedestrians and easy access to mass transit. Resurrection, or Dirilis in Turkish, keeps its gate and shutters open, with New Testaments and other literature waiting in shelves that sit on two open window ledges. The church gives away hundreds of volumes this way, and passersby also often stop in for conversation or prayer.
Brunson is ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the couple serves with Partners In Harvest. Church officers I contacted about the case, including EPC stated clerk Jeff Jeremiah, referred questions to ACLJ. Last month the advocacy group called for the U.S. government to “take a more active role in fighting for Pastor Andrew’s release.” In a statement released April 7—the six-month anniversary of Brunson’s imprisonment—senior counsel CeCe Heil called for continued public pressure, as Brunson lives on in a Turkish prison cell built for eight that at times has held 22 prisoners, all Muslims.