WASHINGTON (AP) – Vice President Mike Pence is threatening NATO ally Turkey with economic sanctions over a detained American pastor held on terror and espionage charges.
Pence said Thursday that if Turkey does not take immediate action to free Andrew Craig Brunson, “the United States of America will impose severe economic sanctions on Turkey.” He spoke at the close of a three-day conference on religious freedom.
Brunson, 50, an evangelical Christian pastor originally from North Carolina, was let out of jail Wednesday, after 1 1/2 years, to serve house arrest because of “health problems,” according to Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded Brunson’s release and said on Twitter last week that the pastor’s detention was “a total disgrace.”
Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison sentence for crimes Brunson is charged with committing in the name of Gulen’s group and the PKK. They want the pastor to serve another 20 years if he also is found guilty of obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes, using his religious work as cover.
The indictment against him — based on the testimony of witnesses, including three secret ones, and digital evidence — claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord in Turkey.
A witness testifying anonymously against a U.S. pastor accused of spying and terror-related charges in Turkey claimed Monday that the American helped Kurdish militants and aimed to create a Christian Kurdish state, the country’s state-run news agency reported.
Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson forcefully rejected the claim in the second session of his trial, insisting he never permitted “politics to enter the church,” the Anadolu Agency reported.
The 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, faces up 35 years in prison in Turkey on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage.”
He denies any wrongdoing.
Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the political unrest. Gulen denies any knowledge of the failed coup.
Anadolu said a “secret witness” — described as a former parishioner and codenamed “Serhat” — testified via a long-distance system and claimed that Brunson helped Kurdish militants in various ways, including those fighting in Syria. He also claimed a Syrian who converted to Christianity helped Brunson.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for decades, forcefully rejected the claims.
Anadolu quoted Brunson as responding: “These accusations are shameful and disgusting. There is not one photograph or tape recording praising the PKK at the (Izmir) Resurrection Church. Our church had several Turkish followers. Our doors were open to everyone. I strived to prevent politics entering the church.”
(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)