A gaunt and reportedly demoralized American pastor detained in Turkey pleaded his innocence in a courtroom on Monday, denying charges he committed military espionage and that he’s aligned with a terrorist group. He faces a possible 35-year sentence, if convicted.
"I am a Christian pastor,” Andrew Brunson said during the hearing. “I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different."
The Turkish government has charged the 50-year-old American of being a terrorist. But his attorneys claim the Christian minister, who has shepherded a small church in Turkey for 23 years, is a political pawn.
"How could [Turkey], with a straight face, put forth this indictment that they know...we're going to read and see right through their scam that they have nothing on Pastor Brunson,” said CeCei Heil with the American Center for Law and Justice, which is helping to represent Brunson. “He has done nothing. He is an innocent pastor who has simply lived out his faith in Turkey."
The Turkish Government has accused Brunson of being a co-conspirator of the exiled Turkish Imam – Fethullah Gulen. Turkey President Tayyip Erdogan said Gulen orchestrated the failed coup attempt in 2016, from his home in Pennsylvania.
Part of the 62-page indictment against Brunson cites secret witnesses and covert espionage tactics. It reads, in part, that he's guilty of, "committing crimes on behalf of the organization despite not being a member of the organization, and disclosing State information that must remain confidential for political or military espionage."
Turkey has filed extradition papers with the U.S. against Gulen, which are still being reviewed.
The State Department has called the charges against Brunson ridiculous and has asked for his release.
President Trump and Vice President Pence have both brought up Brunson's case with President Erdogan, asking for his release. The U.S. has a team in Turkey observing the trial. It includes former Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom.
"The administration is deeply concerned about this case,” Brownback said. “We completely believe factually he is innocent."
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee, is part of the team in Turkey.
“This pastor was in the United States after the coup and after Erdogan was rounding up people all across the country,” he told Fox News last Friday. “Does anybody really believe that he would have traveled back to a country that he felt like he could have been swept up into that?"
Meanwhile, the year and a half of imprisonment has taken a personal toll on Brunson and his family.
“He's demoralized because he's been in prison for months even though he's innocent,” said Ismail Cem Halavurt, his Turkish defense attorney. “He missed his daughter's wedding, he missed his child's graduation. He is demoralized for staying in prison for so long despite not having committed a crime."
His daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, said her father feels broken and very confused, but that his faith has been strengthened.
"He's been digging into his relationship with God," she said, "and then giving everything to him and saying God my life is in your hands your will be done and this is all to your glory."