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You can safely bet Andrew and Norine Brunson did not entertain visions of grandeur when they embarked on what’s become a 24-year stint in Turkey. Back then Turkey lacked good toilets and Starbucks—both items it now enjoys. Its leaders were eager to join the European Union, and the developed world. About the time the Brunsons opened Resurrection Church in Izmir, Turkey’s Ministry of Tourism invited me on a tour of Christian sites, eager to show journalists “the other Holy Land.”
That’s all changed. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government for nearly two years has used emergency laws to quell dissent, real or imagined. Under those laws the government has jailed more than 50,000 citizens and silenced all but state-run newspapers and television. Officials jailed Brunson in October 2016, and his case did not come to trial until April 2018.
An indictment accuses Brunson, 50, of espionage and attempting to overthrow the government—charges that carry a life sentence and are thoroughly lacking in evidence. It says he was working “to divide and separate the Turkish people” by “means of Christianization.”
‘I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out.’
Brunson’s trial, then, isn’t only blatant hostage diplomacy—as Erdogan clearly wants concessions from the United States to release him—but also a trial for Christianity in Turkey.
By his trial date Brunson had become an international figure. The auditorium serving as a courtroom in the Aliaga Prison complex, where Brunson had been held, filled April 16 with international press, foreign dignitaries, and others who obtained security badges and passed two army checkpoints to enter. Brunson and his attorney faced a dais where the three-judge panel sat. Onlookers, including Brunson’s wife Norine, sat far behind him, watching the proceedings on two 15-foot projection screens.
Credit goes to those who showed up: The Brunsons’ U.S. senator, Thom Tillis of North Carolina; U.S. Ambassador Sam Brownback, the newly installed religious freedom envoy; about 25 international journalists; and five fellow Christians, including three Turkish pastors, American pastor Bill Devlin and journalist Barbara Baker. The Turkish pastors have the most to lose, living as they do under emergency law, but Ihsan Ozbek, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, was bold. “It’s an empty case,” he told reporters.
Brownback too spoke unequivocally: “We fully believe that he is innocent of all the charges against him.”
Tillis and Brownback were joined by about a dozen U.S. Embassy personnel—a level of interest in sharp contrast to hostage cases under the Obama administration—like Kayla Mueller’s in Syria—where officials took little public interest and warned family members from involvement.
That left Devlin, the Turkish clergy, and others wondering where the American church was, particularly representatives from Brunson’s own 600-congregation Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They were holding round-the-clock prayer vigils as Brunson went on trial, and Brunson’s hometown pastor, Richard White of Christ Community Church in Montreat, N.C., told me it was “a difficult call” whether to go, “but we remain resolute in our prayer and desire to help.”
Brunson’s April 16 trial lasted 13 hours. He came prepared to answer every charge in the 62-page indictment. He began: “I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out.”
Turkey’s prosecutor produced phone records and three “secret” witnesses allegedly showing Brunson’s terrorist ties. Two appeared via video, their faces and voices altered, and a third spoke in the courtroom, also concealed. They repeated the charges without offering evidence.
What won’t show up in any transcript: how the church universal prayed (one Twitter post showed a full auditorium in Brazil bowed in prayer for Brunson) and how Brunson, in delivering his own defense, proclaimed the gospel—meaning both good news and truth—much like Paul speaking in nearby Ephesus (Acts 19). When Jesus spoke to that church in the book of Revelation, He commended it for its hard work and patient endurance (Revelation 2:2), all on display throughout Brunson’s hard imprisonment.
So it was a shock and disappointment that late in the evening the judges announced a continuation, scheduled for May 7, and returned Brunson to prison. This contest continues—not only in halls of power, but also in the heavenly courts.