The case of a U.S. pastor jailed in western Turkey since October after lawyers say the government deemed him a "security risk" has been elevated to the highest levels of U.S.-Turkey diplomacy.
The White House and the legal team for American Protestant missionary Andrew Brunson said U.S. President Donald Trump raised concerns about his detention during meetings with his Turkish counterpart this week.
"President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States," the White House said in a statement after Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington on Tuesday.
Authorities and representatives of the Protestant Christian community in Turkey say Brunson, who has been a Protestant missionary in Turkey for more than 20 years, is being held at an Izmir detention facility in isolation. He and his wife, Norine Brunson, who led the Protestant Resurrection Church in the city of Izmir, were detained October 7, Turkish officials confirmed to VOA. Norine Brunson was released October 20 and has since pursued her husband's freedom.
Alleged ties to Gulen
In a statement to the United Nations on May 15, the legal Christian advocacy group, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), said Brunson was told that he was being detained as a "national security risk." His "detention appears to be related to his work as a Christian minister," the statement said.
Brunson was charged in December with belonging to what the Turkish government calls the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO). Gulen, a moderate Islamic preacher and Turkish citizen who lives in Pennsylvania legally, is accused by the Turkish government to be the mastermind behind the July 15 coup attempt. Turkey has been seeking Gulen's extradition.
Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested, suspended or fired from their jobs under a state of emergency imposed by the government following that failed coup attempt. Christian groups in Turkey told VOA they are being targeted by the conservative Muslim-dominated government.
Officials in Ankara have not responded to several VOA requests for comment in Brunson's case.
Appeal to Trump
Through his attorneys, Brunson in March appealed to Trump for help.
"Will the Turkish government face no consequence for stubbornly continuing to hold an American citizen as a political prisoner?" Brunson asked in a statement. "I appeal to President Trump: please help me. Let the Turkish government know that you will not cooperate with them in any way until they release me. Please do not leave me here in prison."
ACLJ counsel met with Trump last week on behalf of Brunson.
Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ executive director, told VOA on Wednesday that Brunson's case was brought up "three times" during Tuesday's U.S.-Turkey meeting — "twice by the president and once by the Vice President [Mike] Pence," he said.
Brunson's supporters don't know how Erdogan responded or will respond to the U.S. demand, Sekulow said.
"President Trump is actively engaged with this issue," he said. "We are very encouraged by our government's position. This is not over until Andrew Brunson is free."
Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA that it would be a diplomatic success for Trump if Brunson is released.
"This shows that for Trump, this is an important issue," he said, adding that it plays to evangelical voters who backed Trump in November.
But Turkish analyst Metehan Demir said that given the U.S. stance of not acting on Turkey's request for Gulen's extradition, it could be a long time until Brunson is released.
"Both sides will continue to observe how the other side will move for some time," he said.
The pastor's wife said she remains optimistic.
"I am grateful that you are praying and I have heard of some who are fasting," Norine Brunson said in a web post late Tuesday. "Do continue to pray for the meeting between the two presidents. Pray for peace for Andrew and for me."