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Prisoner of a lawless regime

Andrew Brunson’s family and supporters work and pray for the release of the man they know to be innocent

Prisoner of a lawless regime

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie; photo courtesy of Pam Brunson)

Two a.m. is a normal time for monks to pray, not so much for modern postulants. But about two dozen men and women and a few college students gathered at that hour in the sanctuary of Christ Community Church, which meets in a stone chapel on the campus of Montreat College in North Carolina. Their heads bowed, a soft circle of light spilled over the group near the altar in the otherwise dark church. 

The group gathered to pray for Andrew Brunson, the American pastor imprisoned for 19 months on dubious charges in Turkey. The continuation of his trial, which began for one day in April but was suspended, was scheduled to recommence that day, May 7, in the city of Izmir at the same hour (9 a.m. in Turkey). 

Spontaneous prayer vigils for Brunson—whose case has sparked a crisis for U.S.-Turkish relations—have sprung up around the world, including places like Brazil and South Africa. But the pre-dawn gathering in North Carolina had more than passing acquaintance with Brunson: Christ Community is the Brunsons’ stateside church, and among those bent over the wooden pews was Pam Brunson, the jailed pastor’s 75-year-old mother. 

The elderly Brunson was dressed better than most given the hour: She wore a green sweater, earrings, and makeup, and her reddish-gray bob was neatly combed. Brunson and her husband Ron are lifelong missionaries themselves, having served in Mexico and Pakistan. That morning, Ron was training Bible teachers in Mexico, where the couple’s jailed son grew up. 

Pam Brunson joined in the spoken prayers around the room, reciting psalms from memory. At one point she paused to pray for North Korean Christians, as well as offering specific prayers for her son. As the hours progressed, she quoted the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you … and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Norine Brunson leaves the courthouse in Aliaga. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

WHILE NIGHTTIME PRAYERS went up in the United States, in Turkey the morning light at Aliaga Sakran Prison Complex—where Brunson has been held and tried in recent months—brought an array of diplomats, Turkish officials, journalists, church leaders, and Brunson’s wife Norine. 

The drawn-out case has thrust the Brunsons under international scrutiny. Norine, taken into custody along with Brunson in October 2016 and released two weeks later, has not left Turkey. She visits her husband regularly in prison, painful visits she recounts concisely on Facebook, asking for continued prayer. 

For two decades the couple has worked in Turkey, leading their small Protestant church in Izmir, Resurrection Church, and more recently working with Syrian refugees, all without incident. But now a 62-page state indictment charges Brunson with engaging in espionage and using his church as a cover for the Kurdish militant group, the PKK. 

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of political prisoners have been tried in the Aliaga Sakran Prison’s cavernous courtroom, a gleaming hall built specifically to prosecute enemies of the regime. Political trials are becoming routine after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed emergency law and suspended many individual rights after an attempted coup in 2016. Brunson is charged with, among other things, conspiring with coup perpetrators, even though he was at home in North Carolina at the time. 

Brunson is one of 35,000 such suspects currently awaiting trial, according to Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül. If Turkish officials bemoan the raised profile of Brunson’s case, they have only themselves to blame: Eight months ago Erdogan publicly offered to swap the once-unknown pastor for the well-known Fetullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric and opposition leader blamed for the coup and living in exile in Pennsylvania.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Halavurt arrives for trial. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUNSON ONLY GRADUALLY learned the magnitude of the charges against him. An April 16 trial date included “secret” witnesses he didn’t know. After 13 hours of proceedings, it ended without a verdict but with the judge ordering him returned to prison. This time, on May 7, Brunson’s attorney Ismail Cem Halavurt came prepared with 10 defense witnesses.  

Wearing a suit, Brunson entered the courtroom, always surrounded by soldiers from Turkey’s military police. He joined Halavurt, and the pair sat facing a stage where the prosecutor and a three-judge panel were seated.

About the size of a gymnasium, the courtroom can seat 600 people and features jumbo screens above the stage. Those attending the proceedings, including Norine Brunson, were seated far back from Andrew Brunson with many rows of empty chairs between them, the accused isolated before the judges. Joining Norine were about 20 Americans—including U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom co-chair Sandra Jolley, who traveled from Washington to attend the trial.

Attendees also included Brunson’s Christ Community Church senior pastor, Richard White. White traveled to Izmir from North Carolina with an elder from his church, Sam Thielman, a psychiatrist and 16-year State Department veteran, who served as director of Mental Health Services for the U.S. diplomatic corps. 

Christ Community Church, formerly Montreat Presbyterian Church (before leaving the Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.] to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church), was chartered in 1897 and quickly earned a reputation for missions. It sent some of the first Presbyterian missionaries to China and Korea, and more recently served as home church for Billy Graham and his wife Ruth, who was a member. 

Both Brunson and his parents served for many years with World Witness, the foreign missions arm of the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, before joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. (Andrew Brunson as an ordained teaching elder is a member of the local presbytery.)

White met with his church elders and consulted with Norine (and his own wife) before deciding to make the trip to Turkey. Prior to the trip he told me he wanted to “be an encouragement to the Brunsons and a witness for the American church standing in solidarity with them.”

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

A woman walks past Resurrection Church in Izmir. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

The trial started late and went long. The court continued to rely on secret witnesses and a smattering of disconnected mobile phone and other records to build a case against Brunson. At one point a witness produced a stack of The Watchtower magazines put out by Jehovah’s Witnesses, as though they proved Brunson’s hidden activities to undermine the state. Besides alleged involvement with Kurdish militants, Brunson throughout the morning was accused of serving as a cover for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Masons, and others.

Two secret witnesses testified via video linkage, their faces blurred and voices altered. Another five witnesses testified openly in person, according to Barbara Baker of World Watch Monitor.

At the outset the presiding judge noted that missionary activity is in fact legal in Turkey. Yet the prosecution’s witnesses seemed intent on proving Brunson’s Christian activities linked him to Kurdish terrorism and the now-banned Gülen movement.

One secret witness using the name “Serhat” said Brunson was the coordinator of the “religious arm” of the PKK, and arranged arms transfers from the United States to Kurdish fighters in Syria and Turkey. Serhat said Brunson was trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state and provided U.S. forces with coordinates of drop sites for weapons shipments to the PKK.

Serhat repeatedly admitted he had not himself witnessed what he claimed but had “seen social media accounts.” Brunson, on rebuttal, told the court: “This witness gave not a single piece of evidence. He said, ‘I heard all this from second- or third-hand individuals.’” 

Brunson also told the court he had never seen or met the first three open witnesses, though they claimed to know him. Two of those witnesses were themselves prisoners, brought from jail under guard to testify. 

One young man Brunson did recognize was a well-known troublemaker who had kicked over the communion table during a service at Brunson’s Izmir church. Brunson eventually asked him to leave the church. The witness told the court terrorist flags flew inside the church. He admitted to creating a fake Facebook page for the church, linking it with photos to the PKK. Yet the chief judge accepted his testimony, even leading him with questions.

WHILE THE PROCEEDINGS dragged on, in North Carolina the pre-dawn prayer time was scheduled to end at 5 a.m. But at 5:15 no one had left and prayers had moved into singing. Between hymns, Pam Brunson suddenly stood up, looked around and said: “I felt some power loosed in the courtroom when we began to sing praises. Let’s not stop.” The gathering would continue for another hour.

It was noon in Izmir. In the courtroom, Brunson continued speaking to his own defense as one after another witness testified against him. “He did not know what the witnesses were going to say, he did not even know some of them,” White noted. “He had to answer each one on the fly.” 

At about 12:30 the jumbo screens suddenly went dark, a technical glitch forcing the judges to stop proceedings. Brunson turned and rose from his chair, against the rules, looking across the long room for his wife Norine and others in the audience. White rose too, raised his hand and mouthed, “We love you.” Brunson did not know White or Thielman would be there, and he began to cry, raising one hand toward the Americans and placing the other over his heart, mouthing in return, “Thank you for coming.” Soon the others cried too, as they exchanged greetings and White continued to speak to Brunson. 

The technical difficulty lasted five minutes, “an amazing moment everyone noticed,” White said later. “To be a visible encouragement to Andrew for even five minutes had been one of my specific prayers in going to Turkey,” he added, saying he knew beforehand he would not be allowed to meet with Brunson. 

The trial lasted 10 hours, but ended abruptly when the chief judge denied hearing any of the defense’s witnesses. Some were “suspects,” he said, and could not be considered reliable. One, a longtime Turkish pastor who asked not to be identified because he now fears arrest, said, “There is no case, no evidence, no breaking of the law here.”

The proceedings concluded with a sharp protest from Brunson’s lawyer Halavurt, who protested the court’s reliance on dubious witnesses and asked that his client be released, or at least remanded to house arrest where he could remain out of prison. The judges promptly denied both requests, and returned Brunson to his prison cell that evening.

INDEPENDENT MEDIA have been shuttered in Turkey, and the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak, a daily outlet, published stories condemning Brunson, including an elaborate infographic showing his links to terrorism. But Turkish observers say public opinion, especially in Izmir, is decidedly pro-Brunson. Said one resident who attended the May 7 trial, not named for security reasons: “Of course many Turkish people are upset, and not only Turkish Christians. Anyone looking for democracy is upset with what’s happening. There was no justice today, and anyone can see that.”

Thielman said afterward he was shocked by “the level of nothing” prosecutors brought against Brunson, but he said the charges are not trivial and so have to be taken seriously by the U.S. government (see sidebar). White departed Turkey “sad, angry, and resolute,” he told his congregation. He said regular prayer times for the Brunsons and others impacted by the case will continue.

How is the long ordeal affecting those who know the Brunsons and his North Carolina congregation? I asked White in his office a week later. “It’s made us more of a serious people. Serious that Jesus Christ really is worth it. This is a mean world and we should not expect otherwise, so it’s important to be strong in the Lord and faithful in Jesus. We see our brother doing it and it’s hard. The Lord also is teaching us the patience of prayer, even when we are not seeing justice. We are going to be a praying people, and we will not walk away.”

Kubra Golge

Serkan Golge (Kubra Golge)

What’s a NATO ally to do?

U.S. officials have been present for Brunson proceedings but have said little in protest, even in Washington. In Turkey questions have arisen over Washington politicizing the Brunson case, too, as Trump personal lawyer Jay Sekulow’s ACLJ has served as legal representative for Brunson. 

Lacking meaningful White House pushback, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing legislation to limit future military sales to Turkey and employ targeted sanctions. Taking to the Senate floor following the May 7 proceedings, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Brunson had become a hostage and said: “I thought I would never say this sentence, but I would like to see Turkey follow the example of North Korea and release American hostages they’re holding.”

Sources on Capitol Hill say the administration already has the authority to issue sanctions, but the administration has taken no position. A State Department spokesman told WORLD Brunson “has been wrongfully imprisoned” and “we have called on the Turkish government to resolve his case and release him immediately,” noting U.S. consular officers visited Brunson on May 8.

In addition to holding Brunson, Turkey has sentenced to 7½ years in prison Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-American citizen who works for NASA in Texas and was arrested on trumped-up charges while visiting family in 2016.

Other events may tip the scale on Brunson and other political prisoners. A June 24 snap election called by Erdogan could backfire, as Turkey’s top court allowed opposition leader Muharrem Ince, originally banned from the race, to run, and his party has now formed a four-party coalition. 

Also linked to Brunson’s case has been the trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an Erdogan confidant convicted of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. On May 16 a New York judge sentenced him to 32 months in prison, a light sentence potentially clearing the way for a correlating gesture from Erdogan. —M.B.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.