U.S. advocates for persecuted pastors in Turkey & Iran

by Diana Chandler, posted Tuesday, August 21, 2018 (3 months ago)

WASHINGTON (BP) -- In longstanding cases of Christian persecution, American pastor Andrew Brunson remains under house arrest in Turkey as the U.S. government ramps up efforts for his release, while pastor Youcef Nadarkhani begins a 10-year prison term in Iran's notorious Evin prison.

Andrew Brunson
 
In the latest bilateral move, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration rejected an offer from Turkish President Recep Erdogan that could have secured Brunson's release. Erdogan offered to release Brunson if Trump dropped an investigation of one of Turkey's largest state-owned banks, Halkbank, regarding alleged violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 19.

In Iran, pastor Nadarkhani was captured from his home July 22 by plain-clothed police officers and transported to Evin prison, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) reported, to serve a decade including two years' "internal exile" for "Zionist Christianity" and other false charges. Nadarkhani, whose alleged crimes stem from his conversion to Christianity, lost an appeal in May on the charges that were levied in June, 2017. Three members of his congregation were also arrested.

Nadarkhani is held in Evin's windowless quarantine ward, ACLJ said. Quarters there are often described as overcrowded, unhygienic, oppressively hot and insect infested.

"The inhospitable ward is normally reserved as an additional punishment," ACLJ said Aug. 9. "This forbidding modern-day dungeon will be Pastor Youcef's home because he dared to live his Christian faith -- unless we once again take action for him."

Yousef Nadarkhani
 
The ACLJ filed papers with the United Nations today (Aug. 21), demanding Nadarkhani's release, the law firm said on Twitter. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is also advocating for Nadarkhani's freedom.

"We at USCIRF express our strong concern about the reports of Pastor Nadarkhani and his congregants' arrest," USCIRF chair Tenzin Dorjee said in an Aug. 1 press release. "Pastor Nadarkhani and his fellow church members should be immediately and unconditionally released and be permitted by the Iranian government to peacefully exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. We condemn both their lengthy prison sentences and this new miscarriage of justice."

The international community helped Nadarkhani evade a death sentence in 2010 for converting to Christianity; he had been charged with apostasy the previous year.

Brunson

Brunson, a Presbyterian and North Carolina native who had led a church in Turkey more than 20 years, has been fighting for his freedom since his October 2016 imprisonment. He was originally charged with working with the Fetullah Gulen movement to overthrow 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.

Brunson was transferred from a Turkish prison to house arrest in late July while he awaits an Oct. 12 hearing. Turkey has denied appeals for Brunson's freedom, release from house arrest and permission to leave the country. His health is reportedly failing.

Trump in an Aug. 16 tweet described Brunson as a "wonderful Christian pastor" and called on him to remain a "patriot hostage."

"Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years," Trump said. "They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!"

Nearly 600,000 individuals have signed a petition at BeHeardProject.org for Brunson's release; just short of 100,000 have signed a petition at the same site for Nadarkhani's freedom.

Brunson faces prison time ranging between 35 years and four consecutive life sentences. Read Baptist Press' July 25 story.

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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