Congress must reauthorize religious freedom agency for prisoners of faith

Little more than a year ago, I stood in a Turkish courtroom facing 35 years in prison. I was saved in part by a little-known U.S. commission that is facing extinction if Congress fails to act.

Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, center, waves as he leaves a prison outside Izmir, Turkey, on July 25, 2018, to go to house arrest. (DHA via AP)

(RNS) — Little more than a year ago, I stood in a Turkish courtroom facing 35 years in prison — an effective life sentence. This day of reckoning had come after two years of detention on preposterous charges that I had aided a terrorist organization and had engaged in espionage through my ministry as the pastor of a small Christian church in Turkey.

Instead of life, I was given a sentence of time served and allowed to return home to the United States, my freedom granted thanks to the tireless efforts of President Donald Trump and his administration, as well as many members of Congress. But my release was aided in no small part by the dedication of a small government agency: the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, known as USCIRF.

Despite its impact on my life and thousands of others suffering from religious persecution around the globe, USCIRF  could be shuttered should Congress fail to reauthorize it by Friday (Dec. 20).

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government commission that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress. It is led by nine commissioners appointed by the White House and congressional leaders from both parties, who are in turn supported by a full-time staff of fewer than 20.

OPINION: Reforming USCIRF to death

Over its 20-year existence, the commission has played a critical role in sounding the alarm and highlighting the world’s most severe cases of religious persecution — including that of Uighurs in western China, Rohingya in Burma, Baha’is in Iran and Christians in many countries.  It has also advocated passionately and effectively on behalf of individuals imprisoned for their faith, like me.

Turkish authorities detained my wife, Norine, and me in 2016 as potential “threats to national security” after we had spent 23 years living and serving primarily in the coastal city of Izmir in western Turkey.

My wife was released after 13 days, but I was moved to prison and placed with over 20 other inmates in a cell that was only built to hold eight. While prison authorities periodically permitted my wife and U.S. Embassy officials to visit me, I feared that I would be forgotten in that dark and despairing place.

A spark of hope was kindled in October 2017 when, a year into my imprisonment, two then-USCIRF commissioners, Kristina Arriaga and Sandra Jolley, traveled with a USCIRF staffer to Turkey to visit me in prison. They reassured me that I would never be forgotten and that they would do everything within their power to secure my release and to return me to my family.

USCIRF brought attention to my case as an example of religious persecution, an opening created when the Turkish authorities charged me with attempting to divide their country through the “Christianization” of Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish population.

OPINION: Let the US Commission on International Religious Freedom expire

USCIRF’s commissioners and staff advocated for my release as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, which has so far contributed to the release of 14 religious prisoners. USCIRF also raises the profile of additional individuals imprisoned or otherwise targeted for their beliefs in its recently launched Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List.

After that first prison visit, USCIRF continued to support and fight for me by attending three of my subsequent court hearings, including my final trial in October 2018. The day before that last hearing, Tony Perkins, then a commissioner and now the chair of USCIRF, personally delivered letters to me from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. On the day I was allowed to leave the country, Perkins accompanied my wife and me on our flight home.

I will always be grateful for the crucial role they played in ensuring that I was not forgotten. It is imperative that Congress reauthorize USCIRF so its commissioners and staff can continue to bring to light religious freedom abuses around the world and to advocate for other victims, like me, imprisoned for their faith.

Our world is in dire need of greater emphasis on the importance of religious freedom for all peoples, and USCIRF is uniquely placed to do so. Congress, and by extension the American people, must stand behind the commission and its mission by seeing that it survives and succeeds for many years to come.

(The Rev. Andrew Brunson, an American who spent 23 years as a pastor in western Turkey before being falsely accused of and imprisoned for terrorism, ​is the author of “God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment and Perseverance​.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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