Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was jailed in Turkey for 21 months on espionage charges, has said in an interview with Halk TV journalist İsmail Saymaz that his imprisonment was used as a means of gaining concessions from the United States in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt.
“They wanted to make an example of someone,” he said. “They chose me.”
Pastor Andrew Brunson was jailed in September 2016 after living in Turkey for 16 years. When he went to the police station with his wife to pick up his permanent residency card, he was instead handed a letter of deportation. Authorities immediately detained them.
Despite having tickets to leave the country, both Brunson and his wife were kept in custody. His wife was released after two weeks, but Brunson remained behind bars. At the end of November 2016, after over two months in detention, seventeen US senators sent a letter to the Turkish government asking for his release. This, he said, is when his case became serious and political.
“After the letter, I was taken into judicial custody. The prosecutor said, ‘You praised FETÖ and supported the PKK. We are arresting you,’” Brunson recounted.
After this, he says, he was used like a pawn in political negotiations. At the time, Trump had just been elected as President of the United States, at least partially thanks to his conservative Christian base. Brunson was an evangelical Christian who worked as a missionary in Turkey for over two decades. When asked why he came to Turkey, he cites “Jesus” as the reason.
Therefore, Brunson was a powerful figure for Trump. He said that Turkey tried to use his release to negotiate a range of concessions from the United States.
"There was a long list of demands. They [Turkey] wanted FETÖ," Brunson said, referring to the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, whose network is referred to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization by Ankara.
"The governments [of Turkey and the United States] have agreed a couple of times. Afterwards, Turkey pulled back, saying 'No, we want more.' They wanted several things that the U.S. could not give, like 'Let's solve the Halk Bank issue,' some things in Syria. Trump on the other hand said, 'Ask for something that I can give,'" Brunson said.
In a September 2017 speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly stated he would trade Brunson for Gülen. "You have one pastor as well," he said, addressing the U.S. administration. "Give him to us...Then we will try [Brunson] and give him to you."
Despite being found guilty of espionage by Turkish courts, Brunson maintains his innocence. He said he never worked with people from either FETÖ or the PKK, and says he was being made an example of.
According to Brunson, many of his fellow religious leaders left in the aftermath of his arrest.
In the end, Brunson was released. Many suspect it was due to efforts by Turkish businessman Sezgin Baran Korkmaz.
Brunson vehemently denies being a spy.
“If someone's going to be a spy, they shouldn't be a pastor. Everyone is skeptical [of pastors]. If one is going to be a spy, be a businessman. Nobody suspects [them],” he said.