For 23 years, North Carolina native Andrew Brunson served as pastor to a small Presbyterian church in Turkey. Now he is facing numerous charges against him by the Turkish government, including accusations of espionage.
Brunson was detained on suspicion of an immigration violation 18 months ago, as part of a wave of arrests launched by the Turkish government following a failed coup attempt in 2016. The pastor's first court appearance was Monday, where he pleaded his innocence of ramped-up charges including links to a terrorist organization.
At the hearing, Brunson said, "I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different." He added: "I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I wouldn't do anything against Turkey."
Supporters of Brunson say the Turkish government manufactured the charges against the pastor in order to trade him, seeking to coerce the United States into extraditing an exiled Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, is accused by Turkey of orchestrating the failed coup attempt in 2016.
The American Center for Law and Justice is representing Brunson from the United States. Defense attorney CeCei Heil said, "How could [Turkey] with a straight face, put forth this indictment that they know...we're going to read and see right through their scam that they have nothing on Pastor Brunson. He has done nothing. He is an innocent pastor who has simply lived out his faith in Turkey."
Heil added that Brunson has lost 50 pounds during his detainment.
Ismail Cem Halavurt is Brunson's Turkish defense attorney. Giving an update on the pastor's condition, Halavurt said, "He's demoralized because he's been in prison for months even though he's innocent. He missed his daughter's wedding, he missed his child's graduation. He is demoralized for staying in prison for so long despite not having committed a crime."
Both President Trump and Vice President Pence have asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Brunson's release. But Erdogen referenced the case in a speech to police officers last year; speaking of the United States, he said, "'Give us the pastor back', they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gulen] to us. Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you."
Jacqueline Furnari, Brunson's daughter, said her father is "a pawn in a political game between Turkey and the US."