(CNSNews.com) – American Pastor Andrew Brunson has begun a second year behind bars in Turkey, with no sign that the Islamist government is inclined to heed U.S. calls for his release.
Member churches of Brunson’s Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination remembered him in prayer on Sunday, with one congregation in Montreat, North Carolina, holding a 24-hour prayer vigil from midnight Friday until midnight Saturday.
Brunson, a native of Black Mountain, N.C., ministered with his wife in Turkey for more than 20 years before he was arrested on October 7 last year, swept up in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mass crackdown on those he accuses of links to an unsuccessful coup attempt in mid-2016.
The purported charges brought against the pastor include espionage and attempts to overthrow the government, and he could face life imprisonment if convicted.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both brought up the case with Erdogan, to no avail. Late last month, the Turkish leader hinted that he could free the pastor in exchange for the U.S. extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish imam Erdogan holds responsible for the failed coup.
Last week, a delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, was able to visit Brunson in prison in Izmir, and reported that he has lost more than 50 pounds from the stress of his ordeal.
After initially being held with 20 other prisoners in a cell designed to accommodate eight, he was later moved to a prison where he is confined for 24 hours a day with two other men, also accused of membership of Gulen’s movement.
“He lives in a world of psychic and physical dislocation,” said Sandra Jolley, one of the commission’s two vice chairs. “Despite a public veneer of a legal process, the truth is Pastor Brunson has had no due process, no true information about the charges against him, unreliable court dates, and no idea when he ever again will see his children or his country.”
The other USCIRF vice chair, Kristina Arriaga, said the charges brought against Brunson were fabricated and based on “secret testimony.” She called for his immediate release.
‘Not the same NATO ally and friend’
Speaking on the U.S. Senate floor ahead of the one-year anniversary, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) called into question Turkey’s status as a NATO ally of the United States.
“Things are changing rapidly in Turkey right now. Turkey’s not the same NATO ally and friend of the United States that they have been,” he said. “The leadership of Turkey is radically changing the nature of that very open democracy, and is shutting it down to become more and more of an authoritarian government.”
Lankford, who visited Turkey last December to calls for Brunson’s release, warned that American citizens who do business, or mission work, or have friends living, in Turkey should be aware that Americans are being “swept up and detained without charges” there.
“Turkey’s not necessarily a safe place to do business and to travel anymore,” he said, voicing hope that the State Department would apply pressure on Ankara.
He pointed to a recent amendment to a Senate State and foreign operations appropriations bill, allowing for restrictions on U.S. travel visas to any senior Turkish official knowingly responsible for the wrongful or unlawful detention of U.S. citizens. The full Senate has yet to vote on the bill.
According to Foundation for Defense of Democracies research associate Merve Tahiroglu, at least six U.S. citizens have been detained in Turkey since the coup attempt.
They include Brunson and Turkish-American NASA physicist Serkan Goke, arrested in August and accused, like Brunson, of “espionage” and “terrorism.”
Pro-government media outlets in Turkey have accused the U.S. of links to the coup attempt. Tahiroglu said the anti-U.S. rhetoric helps to stir up xenophobic nationalism and to legitimize Erdogan’s “one-man rule.”
Middle East Forum director Gregg Roman suggested Friday that American tourists stop visiting Turkey, a country which he said “no longer shares our values” and does not belong in NATO any longer.
“Our leaders should begin a serious process of reevaluating whether we truly want to call the Turks U.S. allies,” Roman wrote in a Daily Caller op-ed.
“Likewise, we should continue to exert whatever pressure we can to ensure Pastor Brunson is returned to the U.S. unharmed, without capitulating to Ankara’s demands,” he said.
“For all its appeal, Americans should forget about Turkey as a tourist destination. There are plenty of other countries to visit that won’t kidnap us and hold us for ransom.”
The U.S. has declined to extradite Gulen, who denies involvement in the Turkish coup plot. Erdogan and Gulen were allies until the two had a serious fallout in 2013. Following the coup bid Erdogan ordered a huge clampdown on Turks and others accused of supporting the exiled cleric.
While attending the U.N. in New York last month – a visit during which he also met with Trump – Erdogan told Turkish journalists the legal case against Brunson was proceeding.
He also complained, again, about the lack of movement in the Gulen extradition request.
“We submitted 85 boxes of documents [to back up the application] and the American judiciary has done nothing,” Erdogan said. “If they truly wanted to, they could [extradite Gulen]. However, they, bafflingly, do not want to do so.”