Two years after being incarcerated for bogus reasons by the authoritarian regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, American Pastor Andrew Brunson is a free man. President Trump’s dogged fight for his release made it possible. Although a Turkish court on Friday upheld a conviction on charges against Pastor Brunson of aiding terrorist groups and sentenced him to three years and one month in prison, the court decided to release Pastor Brunson early for good behavior and for time already served. The pastor did not waste any time following his release. He left Turkey on Friday for a flight to the United States, stopping off first at a U.S. base in Germany for a medical check-up. Upon his arrival in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, Pastor Brunson joined President Trump in the Oval Office for a hero’s welcome and celebration of his freedom.
Until his arbitrary arrest and detention in October 2016, Pastor Brunson had served as a pastor for a small evangelical Presbyterian congregation in the city of Izmir, performing missionary work in Turkey for about 23 years. Following the failed 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan, the Islamist regime arrested many thousands of people, including the Christian pastor whom the regime accused of aiding terror groups and of espionage. The pastor, who had originally faced the prospect of 35 years in prison, professed his innocence. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pastor Brunson had been imprisoned under “desperate conditions,” spending 24 hours a day in his cell and leaving for only one hour weekly for visits. He was finally moved from jail to house arrest on July 25th due to health concerns, where he remained confined until his release on Friday.
During President Trump’s welcome home meeting with Pastor Brunson on Saturday in the Oval Office, the president praised the pastor for his strength and faith during his captivity. "You are very special to us," President Trump told the pastor. Pastor Brunson, who looked quite fit considering the ordeal he had been put through, thanked President Trump, saying "you really fought for us." He then kneeled next to the president as he offered his prayers, asking that the president be made "a great blessing to this country." President Trump joked by asking the pastor whom he had voted for, claiming that he believed he already knew the answer. “I would like to say I sent in an absentee ballot from prison,” Pastor Brunson replied. On a more serious note, seeking to put the dispute with Turkey over Pastor Brunson’s fate to rest, President Trump thanked President Erdogan and said that the United States now felt "very differently about Turkey" because of the pastor's release than it had before.
Former President Barack Obama had said and done little following Pastor Brunson’s arrest in October 2016 while he still had a chance to do something as president. After all, Obama did not want to upset Erdogan, whom he regarded as one of his “best friends” on the world stage. As usual, President Trump did not waver in his determination to bring Pastor Brunson home. President Trump backed up his tough rhetoric with action.
The Trump administration used the enormous economic leverage of the United States to put pressure on the Turkish regime to release Pastor Brunson. The economic pressure included imposing sanctions on two Turkish officials who were linked to the arrest and detention of the pastor, the Turkish interior minister and justice minister, as well as doubling U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Turkey. “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years,” President Trump declared in August. “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!”
President Erdogan watched the value of the Turkish lira fall precipitously and evidently saw no choice but to cry uncle. While NBC News reported that the Trump administration agreed to ease economic pressure on Turkey because of the pastor’s release, President Trump has denied any such deal. However, Turkey and the United States, still NATO allies, have common interests in working towards repairing their frayed relations by putting the dispute over Pastor Brunson’s captivity behind them. This may well include the future easing of U.S. sanctions that were imposed specifically in response to the pastor’s detention.
There are still significant issues dividing Turkey and the United States, to be sure. Turkish-Americans are currently being detained in Turkey. The Turkish regime remains hostile to Israel, while cozying up to Iran. The Trump administration has refused the Turkish regime’s demand for the extradition of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, now residing in Pennsylvania, whom the regime accuses of terrorist affiliations and of fomenting the unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan. Turkey opposes U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria. Turkey’s agreement to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries from Russia has also caused a rift, given Turkey’s membership in NATO.
Nevertheless, there are also significant reasons for some rapprochement with Turkey. The Turkish armed forces constitute the second largest standing military force in NATO, after the United States. The U.S. still has some nuclear weapons located in Turkey. Turkey has recently played the role of middleman with Russia and remaining rebel forces in Syria, helping at least for now to de-escalate tensions in the troubled region of Idlib, a province in northern Syria. Turkey and the United States are also cooperating in the investigation of the disappearance and possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist working for The Washington Post who was seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul but not exiting. It should be noted, however, that when a reporter asked President Trump during Pastor Brunsen’s Oval Office visit whether the pastor’s release had any relation to Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, the president responded that the timing was "strict coincidence."
President Trump has prioritized bringing home Americans who have been wrongfully detained or held hostage in foreign countries. As even a CNN political analyst had to admit, “Releasing hostages has been one of the most successful parts of his presidency.” For example, prior to President Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, North Korea released Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, three Korean-Americans who the regime had held in captivity. President Trump gave up nothing in return for their release. University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, imprisoned and tortured by the North Korean regime for over a year, had been previously released but tragically died shortly after his return. President Trump managed to secure the release of three UCLA basketball players detained in China for shoplifting after the president interceded with Chinese President Xi Jinping to request their release. After President Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt released Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi from prison where she had been detained for nearly three years. Last May, President Trump welcomed home Joshua Holt, an American citizen who had been detained in Venezuela for two years without trial. And the list goes on.
President Trump also promised to make the protection of religious freedom a top priority of his administration. In remarks he delivered at the National Day of Prayer on May 3, 2018, President Trump said that his administration “has spoken out against religious persecution around the world, including the persecution of many, many Christians.” Pastor Brunson was targeted because of his Christian faith. The indictment against Pastor Brunson spun a wild conspiracy theory based on “secret” witness testimony intimating a Christian-inspired plot to aid armed Gulen and Kurdish terrorist groups in bringing down the Erdogan regime. The indictment charged that “the suspect Andrew Craig Brunson” was using “the cover of missionary activity” for that purpose. It listed among various suspect activities encouragement to “convert to Christianity” and defending “interfaith dialogue aiming to seduce people away from Islam.” Pastor Brunson, the indictment charged, sought to “divide and separate” Turkey “by means of the Christianization of those from among the people of our Country who possess a certain ethnic origin.” President Trump laid down an unequivocal demand for Pastor Brunson’s release back in late July, which he backed up with the threat of sanctions, tweeting: “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!” Earlier that same day, Vice President Mike Pence brought up the possibility of sanctions during a speech at a conference on religious freedom. President Trump followed through with his sanctions threat and secured the pastor’s release less than three months later.
Contrast President Trump’s accomplishment in using economic pressure to secure Pastor Brunson’s release with former President Obama’s capitulation to the demands of state and non-state captors holding Americans hostage during his administration. President Trump did not agree to a quid pro quo trade of Gulen for Pastor Brunson as Erdogan had reportedly first demanded. Obama, on the other hand, released five high-level Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for Bowe Bergdahl, the disgraced former U.S. Army Sargent who pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. President Trump did not pay ransom money to the Turkish regime to secure the pastor’s release, as Obama had done in paying $1.7 billion in cash to the Iranian regime to secure the release of American hostages the regime had illegally detained. “We do not pay ransom in this country,” President Trump said. At least, not any more while Mr. Trump is in the White House.