On July 18, Pastor Andrew Brunson (’88) made his third court appearance before a Turkish court in Izmir on charges of treason. Commissioner Kristina Arriaga of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom described the judicial hearing room as “cavernous.” Three judges sat on high, wood-panel dais in an athletic-facility-turned-courtroom. Far below the judges sat Brunson. His suit no longer fit. He had clearly lost weight after spending the past two years in prison.
Roughly 500 empty chairs separated Brunson from observers of the trial, including his wife, Norine. Four or five policeman idled by to ensure no one could approach Brunson or the judges. The trial resulted in the setting of another court date to be held on Oct. 12, 2018. Brunson was imprisoned without charges beginning in Oct. 2016 before a 62-page indictment was leaked and then issued on March 20, 2018. The indictment included charges of terrorism and espionage as well as several references to his activities as a missionary and a proselytizer.
If Brunson, who is now 50, is found guilty, he could face up to 35 years in prison. “There is no doubt that the prosecution views his religious beliefs as an affront against the state of Turkey and that makes for a very dangerous situation for Pastor Brunson,” Arriaga said. She described the hearing as “heartbreaking.”
During the first two hours of the hearing, witnesses for the prosecution testified against Brunson. Their testimonies were projected on “movie-sized” screens behind the judges. “For two hours, these people made up stories, fantastical stories, about Pastor Brunson,” Arriaga related.
According to Miles Windsor, Advocacy and Development Manager at Middle East Concern, all of the witnesses who testified against Brunson had been connected to his church at one time or another and had become “disgruntled” for a variety of reasons. Middle East Concern is an organization devoted to defending Christian religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa.
Arriaga noted that none of these witnesses had a “shred of evidence” to back up their stories, nor did the judge ask for any evidence. Brunson’s lawyer was unsuccessful at extracting a request for evidence from the court. The defense was only allowed to bring one witness to testify.
After the first two hours of the trial, one of the judges asked Pastor Brunson to speak. Brunson addressed the court saying, “My faith teaches me to forgive, so I forgive those who testified against me.” Arriaga described it as a very moving moment. “I think there was a chill in the room. Even people that don’t have the Christian faith understood that that was an important moment for everyone involved.”
According to Arriaga, the judge responded that they had not assembled to talk about religion, but they were there to talk about the facts. The hearing continued for another couple of hours before adjourning for the day.
One week later, the 2nd Criminal Court of Izmir granted Brunson’s request to be moved to house arrest. Brunson, who had previously served as a missionary in Turkey for 23 years, has now been incarcerated for 22 months.
Arriaga sees the decision to place Brunson under house arrest as an insincere gesture to appease the international community.
“There has been an outcry in the international community. I think the Turkish government realizes that the world is looking at this whole sham of a court process,” she explained.
David Austin Black, a Legal Fellow at the Middle East-focused human rights organization In Defense of Christians, believes that although it is good that Brunson has been released and placed under house arrest, it is not necessarily something to celebrate. “I don’t think that the response of the Christian religious communities in the U.S. towards Brunson’s removal from prison in Turkey to being under house arrest is as big a deal as everyone is making it.… It’s more something that should have been done from the very beginning and he should just be released. He is still being charged with the exact same, completely baseless accusations and charges in Turkey that he was charged with at the very beginning,” he explained.
Windsor told the Record, “Given the unpredictable nature of Turkey’s leadership, it is difficult to say whether [moving Brunson to house arrest] is an indication that Pastor Brunson is on a path to release, although we might have been cautiously optimistic.”
According to Arriaga, house arrest conditions for Pastor Brunson and his wife, Norine, are not safe. Although he wears an ankle bracelet that monitors his activities and is checked on every day, residents of Izmir know where Pastor Brunson lives with his wife. Slanderous stories have been published in the Turkish press that make his situation dangerous. “It would just take a small match, a small action for there to be incitement to violence against him and I don’t think anyone could stop that,” Arriaga said.
Arriaga has officially requested that Pastor Brunson be placed under house arrest ever since his imprisonment two years ago. She related that, although she was initially relieved that Brunson was at home with his wife, she is now concerned for his safety.
Brunson’s next hearing has been set for Oct. 12.