North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson is a free man and back on U.S. soil. After being jailed for over two years by the Turkish government, U.S. officials secured Brunson's release on Friday.
Brunson appeared in a Turkish court on Friday, where he was declared guilty of aiding groups who attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016, but he was sentenced to time already served. Brunson has always denied all the charges. He and his wife had served as missionaries in Turkey for 25 years without any previous such accusations. Brunson's arrest seemed to be just part of Erdogans's crackdown on any and all threats to his power, no matter how minor.
The decision to finally release Brunson followed months of pressure and behind-the-scenes negotiations by the Trump administration. The pastor's detainment frayed relations between Turkey and the U.S. Turkey wanted the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric whom Erdogan blames for orchestrating the coup attempt against him. Doesn't look like that's in the cards now.
Brunson and his wife met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Saturday, where Brunson prayed for the president. The media covering the meeting quickly changed the subject to the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They wanted to know whether Brunson's release had anything to do with Turkey's desire for the U.S. to put pressure on Saudi Arabia for answers about Khashoggi. President Trump insisted that "The timing is a strict coincidence. It really is."
That might've been a little more believable if he hadn't tacked on the "it really is" part.
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The Turkish government says Saudi agents then murdered him and dismembered his body. Saudi Arabia continues to deny any involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance.
Brunson's release will not suddenly thaw relations between the U.S. and Turkey. In reference to Brunson, the headline of a pro-Erdogan newspaper on Saturday said, "Never come back again!"
Brunson, on the other hand, expressed no bitterness toward Turkey during the Oval Office news conference. "We were there for 25 years, and we love the Turkish people," he said.
Pastor Brunson looked severely out of place sitting there in the Oval Office – a humble pastor, devoted to his faith and flock, caught for a moment in the dirty, ruthless, sticky web of international politics.