President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday in support of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, whom Turkish authorities are trying on dubious charges of terror and espionage.
Trump lambasted Turkish authorities for persecuting Brunson, ridiculed the claim that the pastor was a spy, and said that he hoped Turkey would ultimately release Brunson back to his family. Trump posted the tweet in response to news that Turkish authorities had unexpectedly decided to continue Brunson’s trial after the first day of testimonies. Brunson’s legal defense initially believed the court would acquit the pastor of the charges on the grounds that they lacked sufficient evidence.
“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is,” Trump said in the tweet.
Turkish authorities arrested Brunson in October 2016 after a failed military coup and charged him with active membership in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK), acts of terror linked with U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, and using his missionary work as cover for espionage against the Turkish government. The indictment against him also accuses Brunson of converting Kurds to Christianity to stir dissidence and listed “Christianization” as an act of terror.
Brunson denied all charges against him during the first day of his trial.
“I don’t accept any of the allegations or accusations,” Brunson said. “I did not engage in any illegal activity. I had no relations with anyone engaged in such activity. I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different.”
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Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, and Republican North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis observed the first day of the trial.
The court opted to continue Brunson’s trial, however, and scheduled another hearing to take place within three weeks of the initial Monday hearing.
Brunson served as a Christian missionary in the Turkish city of Izmir for over 20 years. The indictment against him is based on alleged witness testimonies, three of whom are secret witnesses. However, no concrete evidence has publicly surfaced linking Brunson to PKK, Gülen’s Islamic movement, or espionage.
Experts suspect Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using Brunson as leverage to force the U.S. to extradite Gülen, whom Erdogan blames for organizing the 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan all but confirmed those suspicions when he suggested the U.S. trade Gülen for Brunson.
The U.S. has so far refused to extradite Gülen, who has been living in Pennsylvania for decades, citing lack of evidence against him.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey,” Brunson said during his Monday hearing, according to Reuters. “I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out. I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.”