Forty-eight of 50 North Carolina senators signed a senatorial statement urging the Turkish government to release Pastor Andrew Brunson. A Presbyterian minister from Black Mountain, N.C., Brunson has been imprisoned by Turkey since Oct. 7, 2016.
He was arrested and wrongly associated with a group that Turkish authorities say was responsible for a coup attempt against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. Brunson is a missionary who lives in Turkey.
The 62-page indictment also charges Brunson, who had served openly as a Christian pastor in Turkey for the past 23 years, with committing an act of terrorism by spreading the Christian faith in the majority-Muslim country, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, who “strongly condemns” the charges.
Brunson denies all charges. “I’ve never done anything against Turkey,” Brunson said in his trial. “I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want the truth to come out.”
The U.S. Department of State says there is “no credible evidence” to convict Brunson of a crime against Turkey.
The N.C. House unanimously approved a resolution June 12 calling for Brunson to “be released from prison immediately.” The senatorial statement is nearly identical in its content, but Senate rules do not allow for resolutions.
Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, lobbied House and Senate members to sign the respective declarations. In addition to speaking directly with most of them, Creech said he targeted some legislators by email, explaining that Brunson is a victim of hostage diplomacy.
“Turkey wants a Muslim cleric in the United States that it claims played a role in the  coup attempt,” wrote Creech. “In other words, extradite the Muslim cleric, and we’ll give you back the Christian preacher.”
The case against Brunson is fundamentally about religious liberty in the world according to Creech.
“The accusation against him claims he is ‘dividing and separating [Turkey], by means of Christianization,’ and that his ministry is considered ‘an agent of unconventional warfare’ beneath the ‘mask of an evangelical church pastor.’ This is no different than when the Emperor Nero claimed Christians burned Rome,” said Creech.
Rep. Bert Jones (R-Rockingham) said Brunson reported to the police for what he thought was a routine meeting to renew his visa. He was immediately taken into custody and denied the right to an attorney. Jones said the indictment released later, based on secret evidence and hearsay, falsely accuses Brunson of membership in an armed terror organization. If convicted, the 50-year-old pastor faces 35 years in prison.
According to the House resolution, 66 members of the U.S. Senate and 154 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed letters to the president of Turkey asking for Brunson’s release.
In May, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (North Carolina) helped secure a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit Turkey from receiving any F-35 aircraft from the United States while it continues to mistreat U.S. citizens and Turkish residents.
“Sen. Tillis has been passionate about this issue. He became interested in anything related to Turkey back when a number of us went to Turkey with him several years ago. The Turkey we experienced and the Turkey of today are two different things,” Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) told the House when he introduced the resolution.
Jones said Tillis attended Brunson’s latest hearing in Turkey, spending about 12 hours in the Turkish court. Tillis said the only thing Brunson is guilty of is “being a Christian and trying to bring a Christian message to those who want to hear it.”
Sens. Chuck Edwards (R-Buncombe) and Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe), who represent Brunson’s home county, introduced the senatorial statement on the Senate floor.
Edwards told Senate members he was making a plea to “all North Carolinians – and to all this senatorial statement may ultimately reach – to pray for the family of Pastor Brunson and to reach out to comfort them by whatever means possible.”
“I can only imagine the fear, the anxiety and the sorrow they must now be experiencing given the current uncertainty of their beloved. Let us please work to let them know that they are not alone,” Edwards added.
Addressing the Senate, Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus) read 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
“Far too often, the right we as American have to practice and express our religious beliefs, openly and freely, is taken for granted,” Newton said. “Pastor Brunson’s imprisonment is a harrowing example of the religious persecution that continues to persist around the world.
“Pastor Brunson himself has written, ‘Let it be clear, I am in prison, not for anything that I have done wrong, but because of who I am – a Christian pastor. I desperately miss my wife and children. Yet, I believe this to be true – it is an honor to suffer for Jesus Christ as many have before me. My deepest thanks to all those around the world who are standing with me and praying for me.’”
Creech hopes the House resolution and senatorial statement will aid in securing Brunson’s release, but admits it is “impossible” to know the ultimate value of such actions.
“But we have to try,” he added. “These are official declarations from North Carolina’s governing bodies insisting that an innocent North Carolinian be released. Who knows in what way God may use them to set our Christian brother free.”