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Christian Groups Denounce Detention of US Protestant Pastor in Turkey

A map of Turkey shows the port city of Izmir.
A map of Turkey shows the port city of Izmir.

Christian groups are denouncing the jailing of an American pastor who has been detained for nearly a month in isolation in Turkey, accused of posing what officials call a “national security threat.”

Authorities and the representatives of Protestant Christian community in Turkey say that Andrew Brunson, who has been a Protestant missionary in Turkey for more than 20 years, is being held at the Izmir detention facility.

He and his wife, Norine Brunson, who led the Protestant Resurrection Church in the city of Izmir, were detained October 7, Turkish officials confirmed. Norine Brunson was released October 20 and ordered to leave the country.

Later, Turkish officials decided to allow her to stay until November 10 when her visa expires, according to church officials. They added that Andrew Brunson is expected to be deported after his release.

Groups take up the cause

The U.S-based Christian group Voice of the Persecuted has taken up the Brunsons’ cause, as have opposition Parliament members in Turkey and Protestant pastors in the largely Muslim nation.

“At this point, the priority is to get Norine and Andrew safely out of Turkey, something entirely in keeping with the deportation order,” Voice of the Persecuted said in a statement on its website.

Norine Brunson might be forced to leave at any time, and she does not want to leave the country without her husband, the statement said.

Officials at the Izmir Removal Center, where Brunson is being held, said his fate is now in the hands of “the Directorate General of Migration Management in the Ministry of Interior in Ankara that gives the orders about the detention and deportation of Brunson.”

Officials in Ankara did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

American officials are monitoring Brunson’s detention, but “privacy considerations prevent us from commenting further,” said a State Department spokesman in Washington last week.

No law broken

Selina Dogan, a Turkish Parliament member from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, told VOA she has asked authorities about Brunson’s case and has, so far, not received a reply. Dogan has been in contact with church officials and lawyers attempting to free Brunson.

Authorities’ “acts towards the pastor are arbitrary,” Dogan said. “According to the international treaties Turkey has signed, religious liberty covers not believing in any religion as well as sharing any religion without resorting to violence or coercion.”

“The pastors do have the right to share their faith with people,” Dogan added. “And what the Turkish authorities mean when they accuse the pastors of being a threat to national security does require some explanation.”

Post-coup fallout

Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested, suspended or fired from their jobs under a state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July.

FILE - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa., Sept. 26, 2013.
FILE - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa., Sept. 26, 2013.

U.S.-Turkish relations are deeply strained over demands for the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for July’s failed coup. He lives in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government said the post-coup crackdown is also needed to curb Kurdish militants and terror coming from Islamic State.

Turkey is a largely Muslim nation, and there are about 10,000 Protestant Christians in Turkey. Christian leaders say the Turkish government is growing more stringent in its measures against Christians.

According to the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, 100 expatriate Protestants have been prevented from serving in Turkey over the past four years as their visas or residence permits were not extended.

The Turkish government does not allow Protestants to build churches in the country.

“Missionary activities are still considered a criminal offense in Turkey,” said Soner Tufan, a spokesperson of the Association of Protestant Churches of Turkey. “Our country is in a very bad situation in terms of free speech and religious liberty.”

Other Christians banned

American Christian Ryan D. Keating, who headed a church-sponsored refugee ministry in Ankara, was refused re-entry into Turkey in October after he left for a short visit abroad.

At the Istanbul airport, “the officers emphasized several times that I had a lifetime ban,” said Keating, who lived in Turkey for more than a decade. “They told me that it was related to national security but wouldn’t elaborate, insisting that they couldn’t answer my questions.

“Since I haven’t been given any explanations about my entry ban, I can only speculate that the government has decided to deport me because of my work at the church and with refugees,” Keating said.