President Trump pressed for the return of a jailed American pastor Tuesday during his first face-to-face meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to the White House.
The White House said Trump "raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States."
A source briefed on the discussions told Fox News both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence separately pressed Erdogan for the pastor's release.
Brunson has been behind bars in Turkey since October on what he claims are false charges. Brunson’s family and supporters have asked the Trump administration – and the president specifically – to take up the cause and fight for his release.
Christian leader Dr. James Dobson said in a statement he commended Trump and Pence for "using their power for good."
“President Trump and Vice President Pence have yet again demonstrated that they are ‘defenders of the church’ focused intently upon religious liberty here but also on religious liberty abroad," he said. "Of the countless issues facing our world, it’s clear that to this White House the well-being of any individual American rests at the top of the list of priorities and especially when that American is a prisoner of conscience."
On Monday, the American Center for Law and Justice, which is advocating for the family, said it had submitted a formal written statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Brunson's case.
In a written statement in late March, Brunson also said the State Department should impose sanctions on Turkey.
“Will the Turkish government face no consequence for stubbornly continuing to hold an American citizen as a political prisoner?” he said. “… I appeal to President Trump: please help me. Let the Turkish government know that you will not cooperate with them in any way until they release me. Please do not leave me here in prison.”
Since then the charges against Brunson have grown to accusations of terrorism though there is little – if any – evidence to support those claims.
While Brunson’s case has made headlines because he’s a U.S. citizen, the circumstances of his detention are common in Turkey. According to TheSlate.com, nearly 50,000 people have been arrested since an attempted July coup.
Besides asking for the pastor's release, Trump told Turkey's controversial leader it was a “great honor” to welcome him to the White House. Trump offered compassion and support for the “horrible terrorist attacks” against the Turkish people and vowed that “the relationship we have with Turkey is going to be unbeatable.”
Erdogan returned the praise and congratulated Trump twice on his November White House win and said his victory “has led to the awakening of a new set of aspirations and expectations” in our region.
But despite the polite words, the meeting was not without tensions. The Turkish government has been riled by a Trump administration decision to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters in the fight against Islamic State terrorists, part of an operation to retake their capital of Raqqa.
Tuesday’s meeting between the two heads of state also comes as the White House scrambles to respond to a report that Trump shared classified information with top Russian officials about an Islamic State terror threat.
The White House has defended Trump's discussions as "wholly appropriate."
The U.S. is relying on regional allies like Turkey for intelligence-sharing and military assistance as it crafts a Syria policy, particularly as Iran and Russia work to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
Trump launched cruise missiles last month at a Syrian air base after accusing Assad of using chemical weapons. But the president hasn't outlined a strategy to quell the six-year civil war or usher Assad out of power, which his administration says will be needed to stabilize the Arab country.
Tension was expected already for the Erdogan talks, after the U.S. announced last week that it would arm Kurdish Syrian militants to help them fight ISIS. Turkey has been pressuring the U.S. to drop support for the militants and doesn't want them spearheading an operation to retake ISIS' self-declared capital of Raqqa.
Turkey believes the Kurds in Syria are linked to a Turkish Kurdish group, known as the PKK, which the U.S., the European Union and Turkey all consider a terrorist organization. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurds as their best battlefield partner on the ground in northern Syria.
Last month, the Turkish military bombed Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, in one case with American forces only about six miles away. Erdogan's government also has insisted it may attack Syrian Kurdish fighters again.
Trump has gone out of his way to foster a good relationship with Erdogan. After a national referendum last month that strengthened Erdogan's presidential powers, European leaders and rights advocates criticized Turkey for moving closer toward autocratic rule. Trump congratulated Erdogan.
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.