Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
Pastor Andrew Brunson is the classic example of a person devoted to foreign service in the name of Christ. Since 1993, Brunson has lived in Turkey while preaching the Lord's word and performing humanitarian work with refugees. Turkey, of course, is a Muslim country, and the hostility towards Christianity has at times been palpable. Nevertheless, Brunson had been allowed to preach and practice his faith with little interference from Turkish authorities.
But on August 28, 2014, Turkey changed with the induction of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President. As Prime Minister, Erdogan had been largely viewed as relatively tolerant of Christianity and religious freedoms. However, as his tenure progressed he became increasingly despotic. By the time he became President, Erdogan had become strongly Muslim-centric and hostile to the position of Christians in his country.
On July 15, 2016, things went from bad to worse when a coup d'état attempt took place in Turkey. Erdogan was able to reassert control of the government and followed through with a tough containment campaign designed to rid the country of any potential enemies.
It was against this backdrop that Brunson and his wife, Norine, were summoned to renew their visas in October 2016. When they arrived at the appropriate agency, instead of working on their visa renewal process, they were arrested and held without formal charges. While Norine was released 13 days later, Brunson continued to be held.
In December 2016, charges of being a member of an armed terrorist organization were finally brought against Brunson, and in August 2017, they were broadened to include charges of espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and attempting change to change the constitutional order of Turkey.
The charges were largely viewed as absurd. One Turkish pastor stated, "Andrew is not a spy. It's a political case." In a court appearance, Brunson deniedthe charges and demanded "an explanation as to when, where and how [he] conducted espionage."
In the meantime, and still during the tenure of President Barack Obama, the Turkish government accused Mr. Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in Philadelphia as being the mastermind of the coup against Erdogan. The United States responded by denying Turkey's extradition request on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
The Trump Administration began working on the case early in its tenure. It helped that Jay Sekulow, the radio figure and member of President Donald Trump's personal legal team, had been representing Brunson. In the media, talk of a possible exchange began.
In May 2017, Erdogan visited President Trump in the White House where the conversation centered on both countries' resolve to fight ISIS, put an end to the Syrian conflict, and trade expansion. As part of what President Trump described as "long and hard discussions," Erdogan and Trump spoke about Turkey's desire to have Gülen extradited and the United States' concern about Brunson, but essentially, no progress was made.
Relations between Turkey and the United States would continue to deteriorate as Turkey, a NATO nation, announced its intent to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, a clear affront to America's effort at placing trade sanctions upon Russia.
The decision outragedmembers of the Senate who introduced legislation that would suspend the sale of F-35s to Turkey. Additionally, on August 1, 2018, the U.S. sanctioned two Turkish ministers involved in Brunson's detention, and President Trump made clear his intent to impose further sanctionsagainst the ostensible ally if Brunson was not released.
In July, after a NATO meeting, Erdogan and Trump were all smiles and fist bumpsleading to speculation that perhaps progress had been made, but hopes of a rapid release of the American pastor dwindled as the Turkish courts scheduled a hearing in October. During the United Nations General Assembly meeting there was yet another, albeit brief, exchange between Presidents Trump and Erdogan with no word about any consensus regarding Brunson.
But then, a possible break in the impasse occurred in September when President Erdogan intimatedthat if the Turkish courts were willing, a release could be arranged. In the days leading up to the October hearing, rumors swirled that perhaps Brunson would be released.
In the hours leading to the October 12 hearing, news rapidly improved. Three government witnesses that had been prepared to testify against Brunson recanted. Suddenly, there was no longer a case against the American pastor, and the court discontinued Brunson's house arrest. Brunson was then quickly taken to the airport and flown out of Turkey, to land in the United States on Saturday following a brief stop in Germany.
Clearly, multiple factors went into Andrew Brunson's release from Turkish prison. But one thing is certain; the Turkish pastor who observed that Brunson's arrest was "a political case" was proven correct.
Once again, Trump's aggressive tactics and diplomatic style went a long way towards securing Brunson's release, a fact that did not escape the eye of Franklin Graham, President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In an interview on Saturday with "America's News Headquarters," Graham observed that Brunson would have been held in Turkey for the rest of his life if it were not for Donald Trump.
He may well be correct.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pages and serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.