Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wished Christian citizens in Turkey a Christmas message of hope Saturday, even as North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson sits falsely imprisoned in the near-Middle Eastern country.
Erdogan’s message was released by his press office and attempted to sell the idea that Turkey is a nation of tolerance that welcomes and enables different traditions and beliefs. According to Turkish media outlet Andalou Agency, Erdogan believes that Turkey is a safe haven for repressed Christians and a place where they can live in peace:
“We, the members of this deep-rooted tradition, continue to embrace all the oppressed who have escaped war, oppression, and pressure,” the president [said].
His message stands in stark contrast to the stories of American pastors who have been leading congregations in Turkey, but who have faced persecution and imprisonment over the last few months as Turkey has grown increasingly anti-American.
Brunson, pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church on the west coast of Turkey, has been sitting in a Turkish prison since early December for alleged ties to the Gülen movement, which Erdogan blames for being behind the attempted military coup in July and responsible for the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara.
Christianity Today reports that the reprisals against Christians in Turkey is growing as fast as the anti-Gulenist movement:
The Gülen movement’s inspiration and namesake, influential cleric and political activist Fethullah Gülen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and American authorities refuse to extradite him. The current treatment of American evangelicals in the wake of the failed coup is seen as retaliation, according to Armenian members of Turkey’s parliament.
“Protestant or Christian churches are seen as an American influence, and now that Turkey is anti-American, they are being targeted even more,” Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told Religion News Service.
The American Center for Law and Justice has taken up Brunson’s cause and is working to secure his release.
“As we approach Christmas—a season of hope and promise—we know that people around the world will stand with Pastor Andrew—will be Pastor Andrew’s voice—supporting his fight for freedom, and will join us in urging Turkey to release him immediately,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the ACLJ.
Non-Muslims comprise about one percent of the population in Turkey.