Turkey (MNN) — American pastor Andrew Brunson finally was allowed to appear in court on Monday for the first time since his arrest in Turkey a year and a half ago. He is facing charges of terrorism and espionage and could be sentenced to 35 years in prison.
After the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, the government conducted sweeping arrests. Andrew Brunson and his wife, Norine Brunson, had been in the country for 23 years serving the Turkish Church. When they were summoned to a local police station, they thought it was to collect their permanent residence permits. Instead, they were arrested.
Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs says, “The early thought was they were going to revoke their visas and send them home. They arrested both Andrew and Norine. She was then released and at that time, Andrew was transferred instead into a kind of immigration holding cell, into an actual prison. That’s when it came out [that] this isn’t just an immigration issue.”
Brunson was charged with terrorism and espionage in collaboration with Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric the Turkish government believes orchestrated the coup. However, no evidence was presented for these charges against Brunson besides supposed anonymous witnesses. Since then, he has become a political pawn.
Gulen currently resides in the United States. According to the BBC, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated in September that Turkey would be willing to release Brunson if the US handed over Gulen. The US government dismissed the hostage swap suggestion.
Meanwhile, US officials continue to make a strong appeal for Brunson’s release.
Nettleton shares, “We know that one of the Brunson’s senators from North Carolina was present in the courtroom along with the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback…. So definitely a show that the American government is very interested in this case [and] is watching closely what happens.”
This hearing was the first opportunity for Brunson to state his innocence before the court. He requested to be sent home under house arrest, but the judge denied Brunson’s request. After his Monday hearing, Brunson was sent to a different Turkish prison notorious for overcrowding. The next hearing has been scheduled for May 7.
The trial is still ongoing, but there is no telling how often Brunson will be granted court hearings or how long the process will take overall. “Now we wait to see, okay, what happens next?”
VOM Radio was able to interview Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari. She says of the possible 35-year sentence, “I think it sounds so crazy that I can’t even process what that would look like. Thirty-five years for him would mean he would get out when he’s 85, which means his whole life is just gone. He would miss out on so much of his time that he could be spending with my mom. He would miss out on seeing my siblings and I grow up and transition into adult life, make decisions, get married, have children. So it’s very painful to think of that possibility.”
Brunson has already missed out on a lot during these last 18 months in prison. Right before he was detained, Furnari’s husband — who was simply her boyfriend at the time — sent Brunson a picture of the ring he was planning to propose with, and received his future father-in-law’s blessing.
Furnari shares, “Since that time, I have gotten married. My dad has definitely missed out on a lot, but my husband and I decided to wait for a ceremony for my father because I promised him that he will walk me down the aisle. So I’m still waiting for that, still hoping.”
She says the first few months of her father’s arrest were very confusing and overwhelming for him. But now, “I think in the last few months, he’s really come to be a lot more at peace with the situation. He has calmed down a bit more. He’s been able to spend more time with God and has just accepted and said, ‘Lord, my life is yours. I may not be happy with the situation but I’m really relying on you and you are worthy of everything I am going through.’”
For herself, Furnari reflects, “What’s really come out of this experience is I’ve definitely started to understand — whether I like a situation or not, whether there are world powers involved in a situation or not — God is ultimately in control and He has a plan. That is something that has given me a lot of comfort to know that ultimately, God has it.”
As the trial progresses, please pray for Brunson and his family to feel God’s comfort and strength at this time. Pray for all those involved in the case to have wisdom and seek justice. And pray for the Brunson family and the Turkish Church to be a faithful witness to the Gospel in persecution.
“Thank you so, so much for caring about this situation and praying faithfully for my family, for my dad, and the Turkish Church as a whole,” says Furnari. “I think that this situation has drawn a lot more attention to what is going on in Turkey and what is happening with the Church there. The extra prayer that’s been flowing in I think has been really making a difference. Thank you for your faithfulness and following up with the situation, praying constantly,…really we can’t express how grateful we are for that.”
(Header photo courtesy of World Witness)