A Christian Pastor in Turkey’s Prisons

Andrew Brunson was elated when Turkey’s Interior Ministry summoned him on Oct. 7 in the coastal city of Izmir. The ministry, the American pastor imagined, was granting him and his wife, Norine, permanent-resident status after they’d spent more than two decades preaching the gospel in Turkey. Instead they were arrested and detained for unspecified reasons.

So began a Turkish nightmare the couple is living to this day.

Turkish immigration authorities informed the Brunsons that they would be detained pending deportation from the country. Norine was released after two weeks, but her husband was held in the immigration-detention facility for another two months, including two days in solitary confinement. He was initially denied access to legal counsel, and two U.S. consular visits didn’t take place until after he’d already spent a month in the facility.


“What’s been frustrating is that no information has been given at any time,” a lawyer for the Brunsons told me in a phone interview. (The lawyer requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the case.) By all accounts Pastor Brunson loves Turks and Turkey. He raised his children in the country, and the Brunsons have had “zero issues for 23 years,” their lawyer says.

Yet overnight on Dec. 8 the pastor was transferred to a counterterror center, brought before a judge the next day and charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” To this day the limited case documentation provided to the family doesn’t specify which “terror” organization the pastor supposedly joined. Court proceedings revealed, however, that the Turks may have pegged Pastor Brunson as a Gülenist.

Fethullah Gülen is a Pennsylvania-based imam whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of masterminding July’s failed coup. For years Mr. Gülen’s followers worked hand-in-hand with Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party to purge the country’s secular establishment. The relationship soured in 2013, however, and a power struggle ensued between the rival Islamist camps.

Most observers in Turkey, including members of the opposition, believe Gülenists were behind the attempted putsch this summer. But “Gülen” plays the role of Goldstein in Mr. Erdogan’s personal “1984”—the devious traitor who lurks behind every doner-kebob stand and behind every tragedy. Under the pretext of rooting out Gülenists, the government has jailed or fired tens of thousands of police officers, prosecutors, judges, journalists, educators and members of the armed forces.

Now even evangelical pastors are secret Gülenists.

Pastor Brunson’s treatment is also symptomatic of growing Christian persecution in Turkey. “Turkish President Erdogan sees anti-Christian conspiracy theories as an effective strategy for galvanizing popular support for his one-man rule,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A pro-government columnist in July claimed that Mr. Gülen’s mother is Jewish and his father an Armenian. Mr. Gülen himself “is a member of the Vatican Council” who “uses the methods of the Jesuit Order that captured the Vatican.” Another columnist the same month asked whether Gülenists might be hiding “in churches.” Still another tabloid doctored photographs to suggest Mr. Gülen is a Roman Catholic prelate.

Mr. Erdogan’s defenders insist the president has no say over what’s printed in the papers. But that’s hard to believe in a country where the state has banned at least 120 news outlets in six months. Nor is the government’s own rhetoric much better. At an anti-coup rally in August, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denounced Turkey’s enemies as a “crusaders’ army.”

Then there are cases like Pastor Brunson’s. A court on Thursday denied his appeal against imprisonment. So far his is the most serious, but authorities have also expelled a number of evangelical missionaries in recent months and shuttered a Protestant church in Antakya for offering “unauthorized” Bible courses.

“The idea that Mr. Brunson’s arrest was related to his religious affiliation is ludicrous,” a senior Turkish official told me. “There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Turkey who freely exercise their religion.” He added: “It’s absolutely crucial to avoid stereotypes and focus on the fact that Turkey has taken unprecedented steps in recent years to promote cultural diversity, including religious diversity.”

Promoting diversity and upholding basic rights aren’t the same thing. Turkey under Mr. Erdogan is fast coming to resemble the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. The difference is that Ankara is a NATO ally of the U.S. that shows little respect for Washington. Perhaps the Trump administration can restore the relationship to its proper balance. Meanwhile, say a prayer for an American pastor in an Izmir prison cell.