A Presbyterian pastor languishes in a Turkish prison

For most pastors, the beginning of a new year is filled with the promise of youth programs, baptisms, and marriages. Instead, Pastor Andrew Brunson — Presbyterian cleric in Turkey, American citizen, and pawn in an international game of hostage diplomacy — is spending it in a Turkish jail. Since he was detained in October 2016, his life has been arbitrarily suspended.

Representing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, we met with Brunson in Kiriklar Prison on Oct. 5, near the city of Izmir. Only relatives or embassy officials are allowed to visit. We are the only other Americans to have seen him.

We were in Istanbul when we were granted permission to visit. Within 24 hours we flew to Izmir, spent a restless night at a local hotel and, before the sun came up the next day, we headed to Kiriklar. Dressed plainly, as instructed, we walked into the prison, placed our shoes in plastic baskets and walked through a metal detector. The painted cinderblock walls of the unexpectedly clean entrance featured bizarrely cheery art motifs.

In the visitors’ area, plastic beaded necklaces made by inmates were for sale. Nearby, a prison guard sat at a desk, inspecting grocery bags filled with clothes he received from inmates’ relatives. During the winter, it gets cold in Kiriklar, and prisoners depend on their relatives for clothing.

After inspection, we were escorted into a room padded with black foam and divided by a rectangular Formica table at the center of which, attached by a beaded metal chain, was the only pen available. Before we came into the room, we had been allowed to rip out three sheets of lined paper from a notebook. We waited in silence on narrow cheap plastic chairs that creaked as we shuffled.

Several minutes later, we heard the loud, metallic, heavy clang of a gate that opened and closed. The door to the visiting room flung open and in walked a pale, slender version of the Andrew Brunson we had only seen in photos. Since his imprisonment he has lost over 50 pounds.

What happened then was an almost surreal hour of discussion with a man still in shock at what had happened to him. How could a NATO ally do this to an American citizen? How could this happen in a country where he had spent more than two decades of his life helping people? What were the charges against him? When might he get a trial? If convicted, will he be in jail for the rest of his life?

Brunson asked us these questions because the only thing certain about his life is the four walls that surround him and define the limits of his world. He eats, sleeps and lives in that cell, and is allowed only to leave it once a week for a scheduled visit with his wife or a consular officer. Most of these visits are conducted in a room divided by a Plexiglas wall.

He has had no due process. In fact, the Turkish government, for almost a year at the point of our meeting, has given him no information about the charges against him and no court date. The case against him seems to be based on secret evidence and a secret witness that allege his involvement in trying to overthrow the Turkish government — a charge which he flatly denies.

Brunson initially was held with more than 20 other men in a cell built to accommodate 8 people. He now is in a cell with two others, but he is the only American, the only English speaker, and the only Christian in the prison. He lives in a world of physical isolation and psychological dislocation.

Since the attempted coup in 2016, much has changed in Turkey. Overall human rights, including the freedoms of expression and association, have worsened notably. Arbitrary arrests, explained by “involvement” in the attempted coup, are in the tens of thousands.

In the chapter on Turkey in USCIRF’s 2017 Annual Report, we state that “no religious community — including the majority Sunni Muslim community — has full legal status, and all are subject to state controls limiting their rights to maintain places of worship, train clergy, and offer religious education.”

It is reprehensible that Turkey chose to arrest an American Christian cleric who for more than two decades was fulfilling his religious duties by serving his congregants and others in need. In today’s Turkey, however, it seems your rights disappear when secret allegations are whispered.

Post-coup Turkey faces a number of serious problems with which it must deal, both domestically and internationally. Pastor Brunson need not be one of them. Turkey already has stolen more than a year of his life. We cannot let it steal all his tomorrows.