Pastor Andrew Brunson arrived in the United States Oct. 13, released after two years’ incarceration on disputed charges that could have led to life imprisonment. He was welcomed by President Donald Trump in an Oval Office meeting, where Brunson knelt and prayed for the president.
Although Turkey did not proclaim Brunson innocent, a court in Aliaga released him Oct. 12 on time served after sentencing him to three years, one month and 15 days, The New York Times reported. The court found him guilty of “terror,” the Times said, following charges of espionage and undermining the constitutional order of the state.
The North Carolina native who had led a church in Turkey was imprisoned in October 2016 and was transferred to house arrest in Izmir in July, awaiting this hearing. The domestic and international Christian community widely said Brunson was wrongly imprisoned and persecuted for his faith.
President Trump, who worked for Brunson’s release by diplomatic measures including sanctions, reached a deal for Brunson’s release Oct. 11, according to news reports. Under the purported deal, charges against Brunson were to be dropped in exchange for the U.S. easing economic pressure on Turkey, NBC said, referencing unnamed Trump administration sources.
Southern Baptists respond
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the release is an answer to prayer.
“We pray that this crisis will remind us to continue to pray for those imprisoned by oppressive regimes around the world because of their religious faith,” Moore said.
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear shared Moore’s sentiment.
“Praise God! And yes, groups like @OpenDoors, whom we are grateful to partner with,” Greear said, “are on front lines serving and ministering there.”
Former Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd released an early morning statement hailing Brunson’s release.
“For two years, Christians in America and across the world have hit the floor with their knees in prayer for Andrew Brunson’s release from his Turkish imprisonment,” said Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas and president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. “Today, our prayers were answered.”
He commended the Trump administration for making Brunson’s freedom a priority and urged continued prayer for the persecuted church.
“As we celebrate Pastor Brunson’s release, let us continue praying for the men and women who are still behind bars and facing persecution for their faith,” Floyd said. “As scripture says, ‘Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body’ (Hebrews 13:3).”
Parents, others add their thanks
Brunson’s parents in Black Mountain, N.C., received the news in a phone call, Reuters reported.
“Praise God! I’m so excited! Oh that’s wonderful!” his mother Pamela Brunson told Reuters. “Well we were at an all-night prayer meeting during the trial and we got home and we fell asleep. We were up all night. … We’re so happy.”
Tony Perkins, a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, attended the hearing in Turkey, USCIRF said. Perkins praised the Trump administration and “many others” who advocated for Brunson’s release.
“While we are relieved by today’s decision on Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention, we remain concerned for the Turkish people because numerous religious communities, such as the Greek Orthodox community and the Alevis, continue to face discrimination and restrictions on registration and ownership of property. Turkey must continue to work to treat all of its citizens equally and with respect for their religious freedom,” Perkins said.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, whose Montreat, N.C., boyhood home is near Brunson’s native community, thanked the Trump administration for Brunson’s release.
“Our thanks to President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their hard work on this issue. It wouldn’t have happened without them,” Graham said on Facebook. “I know that his family and friends here in North Carolina are anxious to welcome him home.”
Religious freedom advocate David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, lauded Trump’s initiative for Brunson’s release.
“Turkey has done the right thing in allowing him to return to his home country. I applaud President Trump for the unrelenting pressure his administration applied to Turkey on this matter, in part through tariffs and sanctions,” Curry said. “The president has rightly recognized that economic leverage can help bring positive change for human rights and can convey a powerful message of solidarity with oppressed religious minorities, especially persecuted Christians. In this case, it worked and was helpful in the release of an American Christian.”
Claire Evans, International Christian Concern regional manager, also welcomed the news.
“Turkey’s release of Pastor Andrew Brunson is most welcome news,” she said. “While we are pleased with his release, it is disappointing that Turkey has still convicted him of a terrorism charge. This is a stark warning to the local church that Turkey remains a serious violator of religious freedom.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This story was updated Oct. 15. Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)