Andrew Brunson: US pastor to meet Trump in Oval Office

Mr Brunson and his wife at the airport in IzmirImage copyright

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Mr Brunson and his wife at the airport in the western city of Izmir

A US pastor is heading home from Turkey after more than two years in detention in a case that hurt ties with the US.

Andrew Brunson left the western city of Izmir in a US military plane bound for Germany, his lawyer said.

President Trump said in a tweet Mr Brunson would visit the White House on Saturday after landing in the US.

Earlier, a Turkish court sentenced Mr Brunson to three years in jail – but freed him because of the time he had already spent in detention.

He was arrested over alleged links to political groups, including the banned Gulenist movement, after a failed coup attempt in 2016.

Additional espionage charges against him were dropped.

Mr Trump thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for helping with his release and insisted no deal had been done with Turkey to allow his return.

Image Copyright @realDonaldTrump

Twitter post by @realDonaldTrump: Pastor Andrew Brunson, released by Turkey, will be with me in the Oval Office at 2 30 P.M. (this afternoon). It will be wonderful to see and meet him. He is a great Christian who has been through such a tough experience. I would like to thank President @RT_Erdogan for his help!Image Copyright @realDonaldTrump

What did Brunson say?

“This is the day our family has been praying for, I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States,” Mr Brunson said in a statement.

“My entire family thanks the president, the administration, and Congress for their unwavering support,” he added.

Speaking to reporters in Cincinnati, Mr Trump said he was “honoured” to have Mr Brunson back in the US.

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Members of Mr Brunson’s church celebrated in front of his house after he was released

“He suffered greatly but we’re very appreciative to a lot of people,” he said.

Mr Trump denied reports in US media that the US struck a deal with Turkey to lift sanctions to secure Mr Brunson’s release.

What was he accused of?

Mr Brunson lived in Turkey with his wife and three children for more than 20 years, most of it working for the small Izmir Resurrection Church, which had a congregation of about two dozen people.

He was arrested in October 2016. The authorities accused him of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gulenist movement, which Turkey blames for the 2016 failed coup. He also faced up to 35 years in jail on charges of espionage.

  • Pastor a ‘pawn in personal feud’
  • Who are the Gulenists?
  • Turkey and US lock horns as relations sour

In July 2018 he was released from prison for health reasons and moved to house arrest until his trial. A few weeks later, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers over his continued detention.

Mr Brunson and US officials insisted he is innocent of all charges.

What happened in court?

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, Mr Brunson, who was one of 20 Americans charged after the coup attempt two years ago, told the court he was “an innocent man”.

“I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” he said.

The pastor was convicted on charges of aiding terror groups while not being a member of them, and sentenced to three years in prison. The court took into account the time he had already spent in detention, lifting his house arrest and overseas travel ban.

When the verdict was read out, he wept and hugged his wife Norine.

‘Pressure was too much’

By Mark Lowen, BBC Turkey Correspondent

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always insisted that he could not meddle with Turkey’s judicial independence and that only the courts would decide Pastor Brunson’s fate. But the World Economic Forum places Turkey 103rd of 137 countries in the independent judiciary rankings and Turkey-watchers knew it would always come down to a political decision.

In the end, pressure from Washington on Ankara was too much. Sanctions, trade tariffs and the threat of more had led US-Turkey relations to nosedive – and with them, the Turkish lira. Facing spiralling inflation, a 40% drop in the value of the currency and the start of an economic crisis, Turkey had to act to normalise relations with the US. Mr Brunson was the key.

Andrew Brunson had the American government behind him. Deniz Yucel, the former correspondent of Die Welt, who was imprisoned and then finally freed in Turkey, had the German government supporting him. Tens of thousands of others here who claim wrongful imprisonment don’t have the backing of a powerful state to resist what they say is Turkey’s politicised judiciary.

Why is it significant?

Pastor Brunson’s detention has soured relations between Washington and Ankara, who are allies in Nato, with both sides imposing sanctions on the other.

President Recep Tayyip blames Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for the attempted coup but Mr Gulen, who is based in Pennsylvania, denies any involvement.

Turkey wants the US to agree to his extradition. US support for Kurdish forces fighting the Syrian civil war has also angered Mr Erdogan, who views them as an extension of the PKK.

The PKK – a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group fighting for autonomy since the 1980s – is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the US.

Image Copyright @realDonaldTrump

Twitter post by @realDonaldTrump: PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!Image Copyright @realDonaldTrump

But in recent weeks, Mr Erdogan said he hoped to rebuild relations with Washington with the “spirit of strategic partnership”.

More than 50,000 people were arrested in Turkey in President Erdogan’s huge post-coup crackdown.