Turkey charges US pastor with espionage, seeking overthrow of government

An American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for nearly a year on what he says are trumped-up terrorism charges is facing new charges, including espionage.

Pastor Andrew Brunson, 48, was detained in October and then accused two months later of “membership in an armed terroristic organization."

Last week, the government filed four new charges against Brunson, including acquiring secret political and military information and attempting to destroy constitutional order and overthrow the Turkish Parliament, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Brunson has denied all the charges.

The pastor, who has lived and worked in Turkey as a missionary for 23 years, was pastoring a small Presbyterian congregation in Izmir, a coastal community city in western Turkey, when he was detained Oct. 6.

Initially, he and his wife were charged with immigration violations. A short time later, Norine Brunson was released.

Both President Trump and Vice President Pence have personally asked Turkish officials to release Brunson.

“The charges that are leveled against him are absolutely false,” Jay Sekulow, an attorney representing Brunson and one of Trump’s private lawyers, told the Journal.

Sekulow also said Turkey is keeping records of charges and judicial proceedings against Brunson sealed, making a defense of his client extremely difficult.

Turkish officials say Brunson was associated with U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has asked Washington to extradite. Turkey accuses the cleric of orchestrating the failed July 2016 attempt to overthrow the Erdoğan regime.

“These are absurd charges, Andrew is not a spy,” Ihsan Ozbek, a Turkish pastor who has known Brunson for years and who heads the Protestant Churches Foundation in Izmir, said.

“It’s a political case,” he said, adding that it would be unusual for a Christian pastor to find common cause with Gülen’s Muslim group.

Brunson is from Black Mountain, N.C., and he and his wife raised three children while living in Turkey since 1993.

The U.S. State Department says it has regular contact with Brunson.

“Pastor Brunson has not been forgotten,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.