ALIAGA, Turkey — Andrew Brunson, the American pastor arrested in 2016 after being accused of espionage and having connections to those involved in a failed coup attempt against the Turkish government, is now free to leave the country after a judge sentenced him to time served.
“This is the day our family has been praying for,” Brunson said in a statement released by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which had been working toward the pastor’s release. “I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States. It’s been an extremely difficult time for our family and we want to express our appreciation to the millions of people around the world who have faithfully prayed for this day.”
As previously reported, Brunson and his wife, Norine, who are from Black Mountain, North Carolina, were detained in October 2016 after being accused of having “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” specifically, the military coup that attempted to overthrow the Turkish government that year. Brunson has pastored Resurrection Church in Izmir for over 20 years.
According to World Watch Monitor, Turkish authorities detained and/or jailed thousands in their efforts to find those behind the operation. While Brunson’s wife was released 12 days after being taken into custody, in December, Brunson was escorted into court, being told that a “secret informant” had accused him of involvement in terrorism.
In September 2017, Brunson was informed via a video conference with a Turkish judge that additional charges had been filed, including espionage, acquiring secret political and military information, seeking to overthrow the Turkish parliament and attempting to change the constitutional order.
Brunson said that he was innocent and asked that proof be provided. He stated that he has been in Turkey for more than two decades to simply tell the people about Jesus and has nothing to hide.
In April, the ACLJ reported that an official indictment handed down against Brunson claimed that the pastor used “Christianization” as a “mask” to engage in “unconventional warfare” against the government.
“The indictment goes on to give accounts from ‘secret witnesses,’ one of whom is code named ‘Dua,’ or ‘Prayer,’ who gives his interpretation of Christianity,” outlined attorney Cece Heil. “Within the roughly 25 pages containing his preposterous allegations, he opines that, ‘In the Christian faith, the beginning of the battle known as Armageddon is mentioned.’ He goes on to say that Protestants believe that President Erdoğan is the antichrist and that American Protestants are ‘counting on being forerunners in the war to come…’”
Heil said that the “secret witness” cited in the indictment stated that the battle will be started by Israel, and that it is a Protestant belief that “all humans are slaves of the sons of Israel and Protestants.”
“Dua’s account makes up almost half of the entire indictment and lacks any substance or evidence to support any of his ridiculous claims,” she explained. “Furthermore, such claims are not only a gross mischaracterization of Christianity, but offensive. Pastor Andrew has spent over 23 years of his life peacefully serving the people of Turkey as a Christian pastor, and should not be imprisoned for simply living out his faith.”
In July, Brunson was placed under house arrest until his trial, scheduled for Oct. 12. Prosecutors initially sought a sentence of 35 years in prison.
“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” Brunson told the court in Aliaga on Friday, expressing bewilderment at the charges that were being brought against him. He particularly noted that one witness who was questioned was speaking of events that were unrelated to the pastor.
According to reports, some witnesses also told the court that their testimony had been misconstrued, and one witness said that she did not even know Brunson.
While Bruson was ultimately convicted of aiding terrorism, the judge, whose name has not been released, sentenced Bruson to three years in prison, but reduced the sentence to time served due to good behavior. He is now free to leave the country.
“Pastor Brunson just released! Will be home soon!” President Trump tweeted Friday morning.
Both Trump and Vice President Pence had called for Brunson’s release, as did U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In February 2017, nearly 80 members of U.S. Congress signed a letter to Turkish President Recep Erdoğan expressing doubt over the charges filed against the pastor. Brunson’s daughter also spoke before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this year to plead for help for her father.