Turkey (MNN) — Tomorrow marks exactly one year since U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was imprisoned in Turkey. It has been a tumultuous year for Brunson and those fighting for his freedom.
Brunson was initially charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” However, when Brunson’s lawyers tried to discover what evidence these charges were based on, they got nothing.
Then in August, Brunson was slapped with a new set of charges that included “gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and to change the constitutional order,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Tat Stewart, a pastor who was on the mission board that sent Brunson to Turkey, says, “My understanding is that in Turkey if you charge somebody, you have to have a trial within a year. You can’t just keep them in prison indefinitely. So as the anniversary rolled around, which they would’ve had to have a trial…they upped the charges to treason, which is a very serious charge for any country to be charged with treason. So I think they mainly did that to buy them more time.”
From Prisoner to Pawn
Brunson and his family lived in Izmir, Turkey for 23 years while he served as a pastor. He was swept up in the string of arrests amid Turkey’s political purge after that summer’s failed coup attempt. But whatever the circumstances leading to his strange arrest, it is clear that Brunson is now a pawn in the hands of the Turkish government.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen and his followers for the coup attempt. Gulen is an exiled cleric currently living in the United States. The Turkish government wants the US to extradite Gulen and send him back to Turkey for trial. But the US demands more evidence of Gulen’s involvement before they would take action. And Brunson’s position as a pawn has grown more apparent since.
According to NPR, President Erdogan stated in a speech at a police academy last week, “You have a pastor too…. You give us that one and we’ll work with our judiciary and give back yours.”
Remembering Those In Prison
Stewart is one the founders and chairman of the board of SAT-7 PARS, a Christian satellite television ministry to Persian-speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. He was also formerly the Persian Ministry Director for the World Witness missions agency of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Brunson’s parents were missionaries with World Witness. When Brunson wanted to go into the mission field as well, he initially wanted to go to Egypt. But World Witness didn’t have work in Egypt, and it was Stewart’s prompting that led the ministry to send Brunson and his family to Turkey. Stewart acts as their supervisor on the field.
“I, numbers of times, went to Turkey and spent days in their home listening to them, their frustrations in learning the language, the trials of just adjusting to Turkey, [and] praying together. So I have a long personal relationship with them.”
Stewart lived in Iran for 17 years and has an understanding of what incarceration in the Middle East tends to look like. “I know that his first incarceration was in one room with 23 or 24 other prisoners and I can only imagine how smelly and how uncomfortable [it was] …. So I know it was very challenging physically. And I’m sure it was perhaps even more challenging spiritually and emotionally.”
Stewart sympathizes with Brunson in the tenor of Hebrews 13:3 where we’re commanded to remember those in prison.
“I can’t say I know exactly what he’s feeling, but I know and believe and trust that he has been relying very strongly on the Lord and trying to be useful for the Lord in prison as Paul was useful for the Lord in prison. We read in Philippians the first chapter, he said, ‘Don’t worry about me. God has put me in prison, and he’s advancing the Kingdom of God through my being in prison.’”
Stewart has been in touch with Brunson’s wife through digital communication. “She asked me recently and a number of people to write a special message to Andrew. So I had recently preached a sermon on Revelation 12 and I had the five marks of an overcomer because there it talks about how the believers overcame the Devil. So I sent that message to him of five ways to be an overcomer. I haven’t heard back on whether he was able to receive it.”
Advocacy and Prayer for Brunson
So how can we be a help and encouragement? First, Stewart suggests, “I think we need to pray for him but also very much for God to change the heart of the Turkish government…. I know some of our high officials in this country have been in touch, and I pray that they might have wisdom how to encourage Turkey to do this.”
He adds, “Certainly, for his wife, Norine, we need to pray for just courage and fortitude as she’s been without her husband for a long time. They’re very comfortable in Turkey so I’m not worried about that. They have a lot of Turkish friends.”
You can also be an advocate for Brunson’s case. Click here if you’d like to sign a petition for his release from prison in Turkey!
“I look forward to when he comes out because I think he’s going to have a pretty interesting story to tell, and I think it’ll be a story of courageousness and faithfulness to the Lord.”