Andrew Brunson, the North Carolina Christian pastor imprisoned in Turkey for nearly two years on terrorism charges, is in much better spirits since being released on house arrest last week, said Sen. Thom Tillis, who spoke with Brunson on Friday.
“He was a very different person than anytime I’d spoken to him since he’d been in prison,” said Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who has visited Brunson in Turkey twice this spring. “I just continue to emphasize how much I appreciate they did that.”
A Turkish court rejected Tuesday an appeal by Brunson to end his house arrest and allow him to leave the country, The Associated Press reported. The Treasury Department announced sanctions on two top Turkish officials Wednesday, backing up threats made by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence last week.
The U.S. levied the sanctions against Turkish Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, claiming that both played big parts in the arrest and imprisonment of Brunson.
“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”
Brunson, 50, is facing terrorism and espionage charges and could face up to 35 years in prison. He was arrested in October 2016, months after an unsuccessful coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdogan responded by ordering the arrests of thousands in Turkey. Brunson, from Black Mountain, has lived in Turkey for much of his adult life and founded the Izmir Resurrection Church.
The Treasury Department said there is an “absence of evidence” to support the charges. Tillis, who attended part of his trial, called the proceedings a “kangaroo court.”
Tillis has been making weekly speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate calling for Brunson’s release, and other members of the North Carolina delegation have been issuing statements. But in recent weeks, Congress and the Trump administration have upped the pressure on Turkey, a NATO ally but one that has created a series of headaches for the U.S.
The 2019 defense appropriations bill, which passed the House and Senate and is on its way to Trump, includes restrictions on Turkey’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets due to the detention of Brunson.
“The President, Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo, the Vice President, members of Congress are really all united on the issue. There’s got to be a different track which really gets to a better place with Turkey long-term. They’re an important NATO ally,” Tillis said. “We’ll be interested in seeing if this just stimulates dialogue.”
Trump and Erdogan have talked “on several occasions” about Brunson, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday.
In a statement released last week, Turkey said the U.S. should “reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interests and its alliance with Turkey,” The Associated Press reported.
Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican, introduced a bill last week calling for U.S. officials at international banking institutions to oppose loans to Turkey. Walker is a former Baptist preacher and co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. North Carolina Republican Reps. Ted Budd, Richard Hudson, Mark Meadows and Robert Pittenger were co-sponsors of the bill.
“I applaud President Trump for taking this decisive action to hold Turkey accountable and secure Pastor Brunson’s freedom,” Hudson said in a statement Wednesday. “Pastor Brunson is being held as a political hostage by the Turkish government, and his charges should have been dropped a long time ago.”
Hudson represented the U.S. at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly last month when it adopted an amendment calling on Turkey to allow an “an independent legal review of all judicial cases involving foreign citizens whose charges and ongoing detention appear politically motivated to create leverage over foreign countries.”