ISTANBUL (AP) — An American pastor who had been jailed in Turkey for more than 1½ years on terror and espionage charges was released Wednesday (July 25) and put under house arrest as his trial continues.
Andrew Craig Brunson, 50, an evangelical Christian pastor originally from Black Mountain, N.C., was let out of jail to serve home detention because of health problems, Turkey's official Anadolu news agency said.
Anadolu's report did not specify the nature of Brunson's health problems. He was arrested in December 2016 and had been in custody since then.
A court in western Izmir province said Brunson would be electronically monitored and barred from leaving his house. He also is prohibited from leaving Turkey, where he has lived for 23 years and served as pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church.
If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison for "committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member," references to outlawed Kurdish militants and the network of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric blamed for a failed coup attempt. Brunson could receive an additional 20 years if he is found guilty of espionage.
Brunson strongly denies the charges.
In Washington, D.C., word of Brunson's release from prison was hailed as a victory Wednesday at the State Department's three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, even as supporters continue to seek his complete vindication.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a new commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Religion News Service on Wednesday that the ministerial could have been one of several factors in this latest development in Brunson’s case. Jacqueline Furnari, Brunson’s daughter, had given an impassioned speech about her father’s imprisonment on the previous day. Perkins said President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had been pushing for action, as well as USCIRF.
“I think there’s probably a connection but it’s all of the factors at play,” Perkins said Wednesday. “And I think it’s a very strong message that’s being sent by this administration that religious freedom is a top priority.”
Perkins said he has coordinated, through FRC, a list of about 10,000 names of people who said they were praying for them. The list was delivered to Brunson’s wife by fellow USCIRF Commissioner Kristina Arriaga, who attended the July 18 court hearing on what the commission called “false terrorism and espionage related charges.”
“One of the things that he was concerned about was that he would be forgotten,” Perkins said. “So I think he’s encouraged by these developments, no doubt, but there’s still work to be done.”
The case has strained ties between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the news of Branson's release on Twitter but called on Turkish authorities to drop the charges.
"We have seen no credible evidence," Pompeo wrote.
The White House said Pence spoke to Brunson on Wednesday from Air Force Two and told him the Trump administration would continue to be engaged until he is returned to the U.S.
Trump has repeatedly demanded Brunson's release and said on Twitter last week that the pastor's detention was "a total disgrace."
"He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!" Trump tweeted.
Arriaga urged the Trump administration and Congress to "respond strongly and swiftly with targeted sanctions" if Turkey fails to give Brunson his freedom after having "deprived this innocent man of his due process rights and liberty."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously linked Brunson's return to the U.S. to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey's government holds responsible for the failed July 2016 military coup.
Gulen, who denies orchestrating the coup attempt, lives in Pennsylvania. Turkish requests for his arrest and extradition have not been granted.
U.S. senators have pushed to delay Turkey's acquisition of American-made F-35 fighter jets, citing Brunson's case and the Russian S-400 missile system Turkey has agreed to buy.
At the end of a recent hearing, the court inside a prison complex in the town of Aliaga in western Turkey rejected Brunson's lawyer's request that he be freed pending the outcome of the trial. The case was adjourned until Oct. 12.
(RNS national reporter Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.)