(World Watch Monitor) On the eve of jailed US pastor Andrew Brunson’s second court hearing in Turkey, growing international comment has focused on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s transparent “hostage diplomacy” tactic, one of several issues seriously souring his nation’s relations with the United States.
The upcoming 7 May hearing near Turkey’s third-largest city of Izmir marks Brunson’s 19th month in custody. According to statistics released last week by the Turkish Justice Ministry, the Protestant pastor is one of 35,000 suspects under arrest and awaiting trial in Turkey on suspicion of supporting the accused perpetrators of a failed coup attempt against the Turkish government nearly two years ago, on 15 July 2016.
After 23 years in open church ministry in Turkey, Brunson was detained during Ankara’s widespread crackdown against the government-labelled Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO), led by a self-exiled Turkish cleric living in the US for the past two decades and accused of launching the deadly coup attempt.
Erdoğan has insisted repeatedly that Gülen be extradited back to Turkey, declaring 14 boxes of documents had been sent to the US Justice Department to prove Gülen’s guilt. The US has cited a lack of sufficient judicial evidence to authorise US courts to expedite the aged imam’s forced return to Turkey.
Last September, Erdoğan publicly proposed Brunson as a political bargaining chip, suggesting that if the US would send Gülen back to Turkey, the American pastor could be sent back to the US. The offer came four months after US President Donald Trump had surprised the Turkish President during his state visit to Washington, asking him in person to release Brunson. Most recently, after the first trial hearing against the pastor, Trump declared in an April 18 tweet that Brunson was “on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason”.
Reporting from Washington, Hurriyet Daily News columnist Cansu Çamlibel said on 28 April: “There has been no single conversation between Trump and Erdoğan where the US President did not [say] Brunson’s name.”
Only seven weeks ago, the pastor and his Turkish lawyer finally learned the specific allegations on which his charges of alleged espionage and terrorism are based, most of them from “secret witnesses”. The prosecution has demanded 35 years in prison if Brunson is convicted of these charges, all of which he denied in his six-hour defence before Izmir’s 2nd Criminal Court on 16 April.
More than 50 members of the European Parliament wrote to President Erdoğan today (4 May), protesting Turkey’s treatment of the Protestant pastor “as a bargaining chip”. Expressing “deep concern about the wrongful imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” the letter reiterated the Parliament’s resolution on 7 February, urging Turkey to respect its European and international commitments on the prohibition of arbitrary detention by releasing Brunson.
The letter also protested the indictment’s association of “Christianization” with terrorism, implying the Christian faith to be endangering Turkey’s unity. The signatories included Lars Adaktusson and Peter van Dalen, the vice-chair and co-chair, respectively, of the European Intergroup on Freedom of Religion.
Just last week, the US Congress passed legislation introducing “hostage-taking accountability” against Iran, notorious for its long-time habit of using this ploy against the citizens of Western nations as a tool of its foreign policy.
The new US laws enacted on 25 April mandate sanctions against Iranian officials responsible for “wrongful, politically motivated jailing of US citizens”. Condemning the practice of prolonged, politically motivated detentions as “a crime against humanity and a violation of customary international law”, the statutes go more strategically beyond blanket sanctions, which penalise all the Iranian people; instead, they target specifically the Iranian officials involved in hostage-taking.
Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, himself held as a political hostage for 18 months in Tehran by the Iranian government during the high-level negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, applauded what he called “a long-overdue move” to curb “this particular bad habit” of hostage-taking.
“[Iranian officials] have … learned to ignore the personal nature of this crime in large part because none of them have ever been held accountable for it. Hostage-taking destroys lives, tears apart families and leaves lasting trauma in its wake. Are there human-rights abuses that are worse than this?” Rezaian asked. “Undoubtedly. But this is practice that flouts every international convention on human rights and must be ended. It is a tool of terrorists and pirates, not sovereign states.”
After the first hearing in Brunson’s trial, two-thirds of the US Senate members declared in a letter to President Erdoğan: “That a Turkish court could accept such a document as the basis for prosecution removes any shred of doubt that Andrew Brunson … is being used as a political pawn by elements of the Turkish government bent on destroying the longstanding partnership between two great nations.”
VOP note: We are preparing for the 24 hour Prayer Conference Call for Andrew Brunson, which begins tonight at 9 p.m. (EST). We invite you to come on the call as we pray, united, for the Lord to intervene on behalf of Andrew and the persecuted church, globally. Click here for call information.