Pastor Andrew Brunson will be spending his second Christmas in a Turkish jail, unfairly held by the Erdogan government on manufactured charges. This past October, a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) visited Pastor Brunson. Brunson, who has lost considerable weight from the stress of constant confinement, had a clear message to the delegation: do not forget me.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, has spent over 20 years ministering to Christians in Turkey, a minority now under attack by the Erdogan government. Last February, 78 members of Congress, led by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), wrote to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking the “unconditional release” of Brunson. In October, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) called for the Trump administration to impose sanctions against the Turkish government to ensure the release of the pastor. A Senate panel has moved to give the administration that power by authorizing the State Department to sanction specific Turkish officials responsible for the unjust imprisonment of American citizens. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should make it clear to Ankara that it must release Brunson or the U.S. will start issuing designations.
Members of Congress should continue to use all levers of their power to persuade the Turkish government to release Brunson immediately. Likewise, the Trump administration should use all diplomatic opportunities to raise this issue not only with Ankara but with other parties who can bring much needed attention to the plight of Brunson and religious minorities in Turkey. For instance, the U.S. Ambassador-Designate to the Holy See Callista Gingrich should make a point of raising this issue with Pope Francis. The pope has shown he is unafraid to speak out for persecuted Christians of all denominations, not just Catholics (Brunson is Presbyterian). The Vatican could make it clear in no uncertain terms that the ongoing persecution of Christian minorities in Turkey should cease and those unjustly imprisoned such as Brunson should be released.
Under Erdogan, the Turkish government has not just become more corrupt and authoritarian, but has begun to employ rogue state methods, such as hostage diplomacy, to pressure the U.S. and other NATO allies. Thus, the question of Brunson’s freedom is strategic as well as humanitarian. In heart-wrenching testimony before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Brunson’s daughter described what the lost time with her father has meant: “I’m still waiting for my dad to walk me down the aisle, and I’m still waiting for that father-daughter dance.” Pastor Brunson should not have had to spend one Christmas in a Turkish jail, never mind two. Ensuring we do not forget his plight is important, ensuring he does not spend another Christmas in jail even more so.
Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @rolltidebmz.