A Turkish court released Pastor Andrew Brunson (‘88) on Friday, Oct. 12. After two years of incarceration on terrorism charges, Brunson has returned to the U.S. The day of his release, the court sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in prison. Because he has already spent two years in imprisonment the judge allowed him to be released immediately and allowed him to leave the country, citing good behavior.
President Philip Ryken (‘88), who was a classmate of Brunson’s, told the Record in an email, “Although I am disappointed that the court in Izmir found him guilty of such absurd charges, Pastor Brunson is now a free man. He also has the satisfaction of knowing that his cause will be vindicated in the courts of heaven.”
On Thursday night at 8:30 p.m., a small group of students — organized by World Christian Fellowship (WCF) and Students for Religious Liberties — gathered in Pierce Chapel to pray for Pastor Brunson’s release, his family and Turkish officials. Students sang the hymn that Brunson wrote, “Worthy of My All.”
Eddie McDougal, President of the Students for Religious Liberties Club was involved with the planning of the prayer vigil (though he emphasized it was the Lord who brought it together). He told the Record, “Whenever I sing that hymn, ‘You’re Worthy of My All,’ it’s incredibly moving. It’s a hymn of faithfulness even through suffering … he’s saying to the Lord, ‘You are worthy of my all.’ there’s no anger in that song. There’s no bitterness. He completely turns it over to the Lord. It’s beautiful. And I think that’s a model for how Christians should respond to suffering.”
According to one article in the Hurriyet Daily, a Turkish paper, the prosecution lowered its demand for a 35-year prison sentence to a 10-year sentence due to overly “precautionary judicial measures” at Brunson’s most recent court appearance.
The ruling that Brunson was guilty but could be released due to time already served came about in part because of the reversal of the statements by a few witnesses. According to the Hurriyet Daily, all three of the witnesses either completely recanted their original statements or revised them in uncertain terms.
The communications director for the Turkish president said in a statement that the court’s decision, “reaffirmed that Turkey is a democratic country with the rule of law, and established the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary.” He continued, “Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from anybody, authority, office or person. We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will. “
Some have speculated that the U.S. and Turkey must have worked out a deal for the release of Pastor Brunson, although leaders in both countries have denied such a deal.
On Saturday morning President Trump tweeted, “There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages, there was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!”
The Hurriyet Daily reported that there was no deal between the U.S. and Turkey. One Turkish paper, published on the same day, reflected the same message in its headline, “Turkey, US deny ‘deal’ over Pastor Brunson’s release.”
In a tweet after Brunson’s release, Trump thanked President Erdogan for his help, “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!”
NBC had reported the night before Brunson’s release that according to anonymous U.S. officials a deal had been struck that could possibly allow for Brunson to return home.
Assistant professor of international relations Kathryn Alexander, an expert on Turkey, explained to the Record that back channel diplomacy may have become necessary. She told the Record, “Erdogan has made his own bed and he has to figure out a strategic way to try get out of it without saying, ‘You know what you were right’ or saying ‘Nevermind just take him back.’ There’s this signal in saying ‘Well, we found him guilty,’ as opposed to ‘He was acquitted.’ I think the guilty finding is very important.”
Shortly after Brunson landed in the U.S., he and his family were received in the Oval Office. In a meeting with President Trump and assorted members of Congress, the president told Brunson, “We are very proud of you and we thank you very much.”
Brunson and his family all expressed gratitude to the administration for working for his release and offered to pray for the president. The president accepted, saying, “Well, I probably need it more than anyone else in this room.”
Brunson and his wife prayed that God would give him wisdom and perseverance in how to lead the country.
In an interview with Sean Hannity, Brunson described some of the most difficult parts of being imprisoned for his faith. Despite his situation, he said, “I began to see that there was value in my suffering… I saw that many people around the world began praying for me. “He described the hope he had, saying, “As I learned that I began to see that God was involved in this and that God was going to do something with my suffering.”
President Ryken also told the Record, “I’m excited to see what God has next for Andrew and Norine. Hopefully, their future ministry will include speaking at Wheaton College and also finding new ways to support gospel work among Turkish-speaking people worldwide.” Amid shouts of joy in chapel on the day of Brunson’s release and return to the U.S.