(RNS) — A North Carolina pastor who has been jailed in Turkey will go on trial next month on charges he is a terrorist who used Christianity as his weapon.
That’s according to the indictment issued by a Turkish court earlier this week against Andrew Brunson, 50, who has been held by the Turkish government for a year and a half.
Brunson, a native of Black Mountain, a small town in western North Carolina, has lived and worked in Turkey for nearly 25 years. He faces a possible sentence of 35 years in prison.
Specifically, the Turkish prosecutors charged him with two crimes: membership in an armed terrorist organization and military espionage.
“They’ve basically equated Christianization with terrorism,” said CeCe Heil, executive senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice and Brunson’s U.S. attorney.
While Heil said she was not free to share the indictment, which her office translated from Turkish, she said Brunson is accused of being “an agent of unconventional warfare under the mask of being an evangelical church pastor.”
It further said his aim was “to advance the goals of groups designated by the Turkish government as armed terrorist organizations by means of Christianization using religious beliefs and sectarian differences to divide and separate the Turkish people.”
Brunson’s court date has been set for April 16. His Turkish lawyer, Cem Halavert, will represent him in court, Heil said.
Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, has cracked down on opponents and perceived opponents since a failed July 2016 coup. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the coup and has proposed releasing Brunson if Washington agreed to extradite Gulen to Turkey.
“Give him (Gulen) to us, and we will try (Brunson) and return him,” Erdogan said last year, the AP reported.
“He’s a pawn in an ugly game of hostage diplomacy that Turkey is playing with the U.S.,” said Kristina Arriaga, vice chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Arriaga was one of two USCIRF members who met with Brunson in prison in October. She said he had lost 50 pounds and was not allowed to leave his cell except to see visitors.
A minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Brunson lived and worked on Turkey’s Aegean coast, where he served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church. He is married and has three children.
Brunson and his wife were initially detained as threats to national security. Two months later, he was accused of membership in an armed terrorist organization. In August 2017 he was accused of attempting to overthrow the government, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, attempting to obstruct the Grand National Assembly and military espionage.
This week’s indictment, however, lists only two charges — membership in an armed terrorist organization and military espionage.
“Erdogan is acting as a strongman in digging in his heels to show the U.S. that he has the power,” Arriaga said. “But in reality, Erdogan is a classic bully picking on Andrew Brunson just as a bully would pick on an innocent person in the park — just to show dominance. It’s despicable.”