by Seth J. Frantzman
There are some 85 million people in Turkey, and there are only around 8,000 Christians who converted from a Muslim background.
Published originally under the title "Who Was Turkey's American Diplomatic Hostage for 2 Years?"
"I would like to go back, but I have nightmares about it," says Pastor Andrew Brunson.
He is speaking about his experience in Turkey, where he had resided for decades until he was detained and kept in harsh prison conditions for two years, from October 2016 to October 2018. He has never lost his love for the people he worked with there. "We love Turkey in our hearts."
I met Brunson this October at Hotel Yehuda, in southern Jerusalem near the zoo. He was in Israel for the Feast of Tabernacles, an annual event in which many Christians from all over the world come to Israel during Sukkot. Brunson speaks passionately of the spiritual forces he sees at work today, of the world and of his love for Israel.
He says that when he was younger, he read Paul Johnson's book A History of the Jews.
"I was horrified. We all hear about Inquisition and Holocaust; but the pattern in history, in Christian countries, was horrendous, and I wanted to get down on my knees and apologize for what Christians have done," he says.
Today, Brunson is one of many Evangelical Christian supporters of Israel. He also speaks about the growing antisemitism he sees. "In my circles, the more people love God, the more they want blessings for Israel – people involved in the prayer movement. There are people who come to Jerusalem just to pray, and there is a real love for Israel."
Brunson's case, his detention in Turkey and the cause to free him was taken up by many people around the world several years ago. These included Christian groups, individuals, politicians, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and eventually the US president. While his case was once the center of major tensions between Turkey and the US and had effects across the Middle East, today the story of how it came to be is largely forgotten. I sat down with Brunson to discuss his story.
The pastor is a modest man, calm and controlled, and he speaks with clarity about his experience, without anger. Nevertheless, the shadow of what happened in a country that was his home for many years is still shocking.
He says that the economic sanctions placed on Turkey by the Trump administration, designed to secure his release, are still blamed on him. "Everyone is affected by it," he says.
He also says he can't return to Turkey. "I was convicted of terrorism; I still have a prison sentence. I don't think I can go back."
Who is Andrew Brunson?
ANDREW BRUNSON was born in 1968 in the US. He grew up in Mexico, where his parents were missionaries, and he became fluent in Spanish. Mexico in those days was still run by the PRI, the party with origins in the country's revolutionary era, and it had yet to transition to the multi-party democracy that it is today.
Brunson met his wife, Norine, at Wheaton College, an Evangelical college in the Chicago suburbs. "I am the oldest of seven children. My mother wanted all of us to be missionaries, and I am the only one who is," he says.
In 1993 Brunson went to Turkey as part of a Presbyterian church that was active there. It wasn't his first choice, but his church asked him to go. "We wanted to go to Egypt. That was in 1993. We went to Istanbul, but after four years we moved to the Izmir area, and then in 2000 we moved into Izmir itself, and we remained there."
Turkey in the 1990s was, like Mexico, still run by a party whose roots were in the turmoil of the early part of the 20th century. It was ostensibly a secular republic, but it was changing. The old secular Kemalist Turkey, the one that was a close friend of Israel and a member of NATO, was becoming more religious, and the AK Party, with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, came to power in 2002.
The AKP has been in power ever since, and it has radically changed Turkey. Ankara has shifted its foreign policy to be oriented toward the East, more toward Russia and Central Asia, and as such, it has increased tensions with the West.
For Christians like Brunson, the mission in Turkey is important, but it has some global context. Brunson's own path to becoming a missionary began in childhood, and he recalls the role of Hudson Taylor, an important 19th-century British missionary in China, in inspiring his own path.
"Turkey is called the largest unevangelized country in the world," he says.
There are some 85 million people in Turkey, and there are only around 8,000 Christians who converted from a Muslim background. This is an important distinction to make because there are ancient Christian communities in Turkey, including Greeks and Armenians.
Modern Turkey was born in the wake of World War I and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and many historic Christian communities suffered persecution in the country over the last 100 years. Today, most cities in Turkey do not have churches, and Brunson says most Turks have never met a Christian.
Brunson and his family lived in Izmir, a city on the coast. It faces west, toward the Aegean Sea, and it was once called Smyrna. It is called "infidel Izmir" because it was primarily Greek before the rise of modern Turkey. Turkey's complex history means that even though the country became very secular in the 20th century, especially coastal regions like Izmir, the identity of many people in Turkey is still Muslim. For many, to be Turkish is to be Muslim. This was a hurdle for missionizing because even people who are outwardly secular have an Islamic identity.
Brunson embarked on a lifelong study of Turkey, first at university and then as part of his daily work. He was already an adult, and learning a language is harder as you get older. "I speak Turkish and preach and teach in Turkish," he says. When he was later detained and brought to trial, his Turkish would come in handy. Nevertheless, he says "a Turk can tell quickly that I'm a foreign speaker."
In Turkey, the church grew slowly. "I did not try to persuade people to become Christian," he says. But he would tell people he was a priest. "Those who were curious would ask questions. Our approach was to be public and open a church and put up a sign that says 'Church.'
For a pastor, Brunson isn't the image of a big-tent preacher with a booming voice calling down the heavens. He says he's an introvert, and it's clear from spending time with him that he is. "That's not especially suited for a Middle Eastern culture," he says. The Muslim world is community-oriented, he notes. It was a challenge to reach out to people, but he overcame it. "I discovered God wanted me to start churches – that is what I believe God wanted me to do – and I was very committed."
The Brunsons raised three children, two of them born in Turkey. "We were fully in the culture, and we thought we would be there the rest of our lives; we had a condo there."
Life was good, and it was mostly safe. It's important to recall that this was the era after 9/11, and in the region, there were terrorist attacks against churches in Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and other places. In Turkey there was an underlying anti-Christian animus; local Christians were not seen positively, he says. However, in outward appearance Brunson and his family were Westerners, so Turks saw them as they saw tourists – Westerners who were inherently Christians, not a threat.
Things were different when it came to local Turks who converted. "When a Turk becomes a follower of Jesus, then there is a reaction." The ministry in Izmir faced threats because of controversy over locals embracing the Christian faith. "We had bomb and death threats; I was attacked once by a gunman; another time someone went from Izmir to an outlying city to attack one of our churches [that we had started], but after finding that the church was closed that day, he came to Izmir and killed a Catholic priest."
The work put Brunson at risk, he says. "We had to count the cost. We had to factor that in. We did this because we believed God wanted us there."
Turkey was changing under AKP leadership
TURKEY WAS also changing. Under the leadership of the AKP, the government had initially had a policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors. But the war in Syria that broke out in 2011 led to an influx of Syrians, and soon many volunteers were crossing Turkey to fight in Syria.
Brunson and his church did help some refugees with food distribution. "We worked with refugees in Suruç [Turkey], who had crossed over from Kobani fleeing ISIS – most of these Kurdish. We also had a team in Izmir doing food distribution for a mixed population of refugees, including Yazidis, Arabs and Kurds," he recalls.
The rise of ISIS in 2014 and other extremist groups across the border led to even more tensions. There were car bombings in Reyhanli on the border of Turkey and Syria in 2013. In 2015 the peace agreement with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) broke down, and there was fighting in eastern Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were displaced, as cities became battlegrounds. In the church there were Christians of Kurdish and Turkish background, where Brunson preached love, unity and forgiveness, he says. "We promoted reconciliation. We never supported PKK."
There were two parliamentary elections in 2015 – one in June and the other in November. The AKP had performed badly in June, and the Left-leaning People's Democratic Party (HDP) had received some six million votes, entering parliament by crossing the 10% threshold. The HDP is also a party that gets many Kurdish votes, and its leader Selahattin Demirtas was young and passionate. Ankara's rulers were concerned.
"Prison was not a risk that we had factored in; no one had been imprisoned for their faith in living memory," Brunson says.
But arrests in Turkey were increasing. The government kept finding plots, and a series of trials called the Ergenekon trials targeted what the government claimed was a clandestine secular conspiracy.
Turkey has harsh laws when it comes to detaining people. Suspects can be under administrative detention for seven years without trial.
"Foreign Christians in the past might have been arrested or under administrative detention and then quickly deported," Brunson says.
On July 15, as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on holiday in Marmaris, soldiers in Istanbul and near Ankara received orders to conduct what was apparently a coup attempt. Warplanes buzzed Ankara just before midnight. Tanks in Istanbul blocked bridges over the Bosphorus. By morning the coup had fallen apart, and soldiers were being arrested. Hundreds had been killed, and there was a national outpouring of support for the government. Then the crackdown began, with hundreds of thousands of people being investigated, detained, purged and arrested.
Brunson was going to leave the country for a vacation over the summer. Several days after the coup attempt, he was scheduled to go to the US to join his wife and family abroad.
"My wife had heard about the mass arrests [in Turkey] and wondered if there was danger, and I said 'It has nothing to do with us' and we came back in mid-August, and we were arrested on October 7."
Brunson and his family were told to go to a local police station. He had filed a visa renewal application in April 2016. He arrived at the station on October 7, 2016. "
USCIRF, which profiled his case, noted that "a lawyer who asked to visit Andrew was denied access. When the lawyer returned with an affidavit, officials told him that he signed a statement declaring that he did not want a lawyer; the document he signed waived his right to legal representation. Initially, Turkey also refused to allow a US Consulate representative to meet with him, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
During this period, members of the pastor's church attempted to bring food, water and clothing to him but were denied access until October 13. Brunson was not allowed contact with other prisoners and was held incommunicado in the Harmandali Detention Center.
Brunson had lived a public life in Turkey. The authorities knew who he was, and so did Turkish security officials.
"They decided to make an example of someone, and they chose me," he says.
The US at the time believed that Turkey had merely made a mistake, as it swept up tens of thousands of people in the purges after the coup. There was upheaval and confusion. It would be sorted out. Brunson was depicted as merely one in a group; a mistaken detention, as though the authorities had no idea who he was. The US secretary of state at the time, in the fall of 2016, was John Kerry. Donald Trump had won the election in November, a major surprise, but he wouldn't take power until January. Kerry apparently asked his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, for the release of Brunson.
Ankara came up with a variety of excuses as it continued to hold the pastor. It accused him of human trafficking; it accused him of being part of the Gülen network, a "terrorist group" that Ankara blamed for the coup. Fethullah Gülen is a US-based Turkish religious scholar, and Turkey has demanded his deportation. Ankara also accused the pastor of being connected to the People's Protection Units in Syria, a Kurdish group that is a close partner of the U.S., but which Ankara claims comprises "PKK terrorists."
Brunson's detention and release
THE PASTOR was kept in tough conditions in detention. He was held in solitary confinement, and US officials could not visit him. The litany of accusations against the pastor eventually led to a hearing on December 8-9. "Someone very high in the Turkish government decided to put me in prison. The prosecutor tasked with doing this ordered my judicial arrest, so my status changed. I was no longer under administrative arrest; this was now criminal... So, first they decided to put me in prison, and then found someone to accuse me."
By this time, American Christians were already mobilizing to help Brunson. Seventeen US senators, a bipartisan effort, had signed a private letter asking for his release. Among the signatories was senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Efforts would grow to include 78 members of Congress drafting a letter to Turkey's president in February 2017; another letter, signed by 68 senators, would follow in April 2018.
In October 2018 Corker's office would release a statement: "From the start, we repeatedly raised his case at the highest levels of the Turkish government and refused to give up on his eventual release. I thank the administration and my colleagues in Congress who were part of this bipartisan effort to get him home."
The first letter by the senators got an "answer" from Ankara, but it was not a positive one.
Brunson was officially arrested and sent to a high-security prison. He was moved from solitary confinement to being arrested with criminal charges, and "they put me in a cell built for eight people, but eventually there were 23 of us in there," he recounts. "You never leave the cell; it's very crowded and intense. I was the only Christian." The other people in the cell were accused of being members of the Gülen movement.
Brunson tells a momentarily humorous story here. "It was a toss-up; they accused me of being Gülen and PKK, and the prison director called me into his office and asked what I was in for," he says. In the end, the director put him in with the alleged Gülen members.
As Trump came into office, it was unclear whether the new US president could help bring about the pastor's release.
Important issues were at work here. Turkey had a bad relationship with the Obama administration, mostly due to tensions over US support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, which Turkey saw as "terrorists."
In December 2015 the SDF had taken Syria's Tishrin dam on the Euphrates River, down river from Jarabulus on the border with Turkey. The SDF members moved across the river and prepared for an assault on Manbij. If the SDF took Manbij from ISIS, they would have an open road to Aleppo, which was held by Syrian rebels. They could also get to Afrin, where Kurdish fighters from the YPG were in control.
For Turkey, this would mean so-called terrorists would run a huge border region, and Turkey wanted the US to stop the SDF advance. Instead, the SDF took Manbij in August 2016. Turkey was recovering from the coup attempt, but the government, busy purging people, launched an offensive into Syria to stop the SDF. This was dubbed Euphrates Shield, and the operation would continue through March 2017.
By this time, Erdogan was preparing his trip to Washington to meet the new US president. Turkey believed it could sway the US on a variety of issues. Key Christian groups and leaders were working to get Brunson released, and Vice President Mike Pence took a keen interest in the case, according to CNN. Brunson's wife played a key role in these efforts. The American Center for Law and Justice sent a petition to the UN.
On May 17 the White House confirmed Trump had raised the issue with Erdogan. "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 the meeting.
However, Turkey didn't change course. It appeared Ankara wanted to use Brunson as a bargaining chip in some kind of hostage diplomacy.
In August 2017 Brunson was transferred to the Kiriklar Prison, where he was kept in a cell for 24 hours a day. Restrictions for visits were relaxed a bit; the visits now lasted up to an hour rather than a mere 35 minutes; and he did get visits from his family and US diplomats.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson called for the pastor's release. Mike Pompeo, who took over from Tillerson in March 2018, also supported Brunson's release. "He took a more proactive approach to my case," says the pastor. US senators, including Corker and Bob Menendez, introduced legislation that would restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey until its government ended the "unjust detention" of Brunson.
Ankara then increased Brunson's charges, claiming he was a member of a "terrorist organization" that had also helped plan the coup. The charges carried three aggravated life sentences. On March 5, 2018, a Turkish court accepted the prosecutor's indictment, which included lesser charges of terrorism and espionage. Turkey wanted a 35-year sentence.
According to USCIRF, its commissioner Kristina Arriaga and vice chairwoman Sandra Jolley visited Brunson on October 5, 2017, "and confirmed the desperate conditions in which Mr. Brunson was being held."
Brunson's trial began in April 2018, and USCIRF staff attended the trial. US Sen. Thom Tillis visited Brunson in March 2018. Other senators, such as James Lankford and Jeanne Shaheen, played a key role in supporting Brunson's release. Trump was active in demanding the pastor be freed, tweeting: "Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason." Trump called for his release again on July 18.
Brunson was released to house arrest on July 25. According to ABC News, Trump had considered removing all US diplomats from Turkey in August if the pastor was not brought home. In Turkey, the nationalist media made Brunson a figure of hate and wove conspiracies about him. There were threats to his life, and when he was under house arrest several dozen police guarded his apartment – not to keep him in but to keep others from harming him. The Turkish economy was collapsing due to the "Brunson sanctions."
He was eventually convicted on a charge of aiding terrorism. He was released on October 12, 2018, returning immediately to the US.
What did the crisis do for Turkey?
THE CRISIS had cost Turkey. The US had slapped sanctions on Turkey in August 2018. NATO allies aren't supposed to hold hostages, and Ankara got a message from Washington that under the Trump administration this wasn't just a story of a court trial; Ankara would release the pastor or Turkey would receive pressure.
Today Brunson is free, but many issues around the case remain unresolved. Ankara's threatening behavior, ramping up threats against the West, has continued. Firstly, the indictment against Brunson included many accusations, one of which related to his work as a Christian, claiming he was trying to divide the country through "Christianization."
The initial detention may have been a desire to deport the pastor. Ankara wanted to get rid of some high-profile missionaries, and he wasn't the only one targeted with deportation. But his detention papers got stamped with form G-82 with the additional accusation of terrorism.
Brunson says, "I think what happened is they intended to deport me, and someone higher up decided to hold on for a while and see what happens. My thinking was that they decided to hold on as an intimidation tactic to get rid of missionaries; they thought others would leave if they held on to me."
The authorities' later claims that he was a terrorist seem contradicted by the fact that they never interrogated him or sought any answers about this accusation. He was never tortured physically. But he affirms, "keeping me in prison unjustly, separating me from my wife and children, when they know very well that I am innocent – I would call that abuse."
By the fall of 2017, Ankara was planning a new offensive in Syria to seize Afrin from the Kurdish YPG. Ankara also wanted a role in the mission to liberate Raqqa from ISIS; but in the end, the SDF liberated Raqqa in October 2017. In spring 2018 Ankara launched another invasion of Afrin in Syria.
According to reports in The Washington Post and elsewhere, the Turkish authorities asked the US to ask Israel to release a Turkish citizen during the crisis. Israel did release a Turkish woman who had been detained in the summer of 2018. Media reports alleged a secret deal. Yet Brunson wasn't freed. It appears Ankara reneged. Perhaps Ankara thought it would wring out more concessions. In October 2018, Brunson finally returned to the US.
When Americans are held abroad, there are generally two approaches to try to get them out. One is to keep a low profile and hope they will be released. Another is to bring the pressure and make it a public case. The theory behind doing nothing is that countries won't drive up the price for the hostage; but a NATO member like Turkey isn't supposed to act like Iran and keep hostages.
Brunson suffered in solitary confinement. It took a while for him to get access to a Bible.
"I wasn't allowed to have books for six to seven months. I was kind of going crazy... literally going insane. I did take solace in the Bible, when I had it, and in my faith. I believed the reason I was being held was because of my faith," he recalls. "I broke emotionally and mentally. I broke physically and lost 50 pounds [23 kg.]. And I went into a spiritual crisis. Then, as I began my second year in prison, there was an internal rebuilding process, so that I went from brokenness to actually becoming stronger and deeper in my faith."
By the end of July 2017 he was out of the crowded cell and in a maximum-security prison with one cell mate. After his release, he was shocked by how high profile the case had become, with world leaders focusing on this one man. After his release, he said church leaders stated that millions around the world were not only involved in praying for his release, but many governments sought to help, including Sudan and Mauritania.
And then one day, he was released and on a plane back home.
Will Brunson go back to Turkey?
"I WOULD like to go back, but I have nightmares about it, and PTSD," he reveals.
When he returned to the US, there was no visit by officials to debrief him. Brunson is clear to note that "there was no deal made. The US government did not know I was going to be released when I was released."
His release was also apparently a surprise in Washington. When it became clear the Turks would let him go, urgent phone calls were made in Washington to get a plane to Turkey to bring him home. "I was convicted, sentenced, and then the court released me during the 'appeals' process and removed my travel ban, which meant I could leave the country. It all happened very quickly. They [the US] sent an Air Force plane."
In 2019 Brunson and others involved in issues of religious freedom were brought in to meet Trump.
"They took a group of us to meet the president, [a group of people] who had been persecuted. Some had relatives being held...
"One of the people [who was in our group] brought up her father... and despite the fact that there was a helicopter waiting to take the president to his next meeting, Trump told us to wait and listened to us... and then more [of us] began speaking up, and we were there for 40 minutes. He was listening to people in hard situations tell stories about their loved ones... He cared about these people."
Today, as Brunson looks back, he knows his case was exceptional. For others held around the world, "it's going to be tough, and it may take a long time to get you out. I had an unusual involvement, and I'm grateful for it."
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. Anna Ahronheim is the military reporter for the Jerusalem Post.