Imprisoned U.S. pastor in Turkey moves to house arrest

IZMIR, Turkey (BP) -- American pastor Andrew Brunson has been granted transfer from a Turkish prison to house arrest awaiting an Oct. 12 hearing, his attorneys said today (July 25).

The move comes a week after a Turkish court denied Brunson's plea for release after nearly two years' imprisonment on allegations of terrorism and spying. The longtime pastor and native of Black Mountain, N.C., has instead been charged with "the crime of 'Christianization,'" his defenders at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) said.

"We have confirmed that the Turkish government has issued an order releasing Pastor Andrew Brunson from prison and allowing him to be returned to his home in Turkey," ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said in a press release. "This is a critical first step that we believe will result in the freedom of Pastor Brunson so he can return to the United States and be reunited with his family."

Today's judicial control decision of the Second High Penal Court in the western province of Izmir prevents Brunson from leaving the country, the Hurriyet Daily News of Turkey said. The court's only stated reason for Brunson's transfer from Kiriklar prison is his health, the same reason Brunson stated at a July 18 plea for release that the same court rejected, the Daily News said.

The Presbyterian pastor who has lived in Turkey 23 years has been imprisoned since October 2016, originally on charges of working with the Fetullah Gulen movement to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In August 2017, officials added charges of espionage aimed at overthrowing the Turkish Parliament and government, and undermining the constitutional order of the state. If found guilty, Brunson faces up to four consecutive life sentences, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017; but the Daily News today estimated his possible jail time at up to 35 years.

Brunson's wife Norine was en route to Kiriklar prison today, World Watch Monitor reported, to ensure that the court order to transfer Brunson is delivered to authorities without delay.

Sekulow, a member of President Donald Trump's defense team, commended Trump for advocating for Brunson's release, which remains unsecured.

"We have worked closely with the President on this matter and are grateful for his efforts," Sekulow said in today's press release. "We look forward to the ultimate release of Pastor Brunson."

Kristina Arriaga, vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the house arrest is insufficient relief.

"It is good that Pastor Brunson will have some relief after being held in a Turkish prison for more than 600 days. But it is not enough," she said in a USCIRF press release. "The Turkish government has deprived this innocent man of his due process rights and liberty for too long, and it must completely release him. If it fails to do so, the Trump Administration and the Congress should respond strongly and swiftly with targeted sanctions against the authorities responsible."

Among many in the international community advocating for Brunson's freedom is former Turkish parliament member Aykan Erdemir, who tweeted today that "there isn't a shred of evidence against" the pastor.

See BP's earlier story this month.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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