US President
US President

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday voiced his support for Andrew Brunson, an American pastor on trial in Turkey over charges of espionage and links to the Gulen movement, amid fractured U.S.-Turkish relations.

“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” Trump tweeted.

“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” the U.S. president said in his first-ever tweet on Turkey, a NATO ally.

The 50-year-old Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was indicted for helping the Gulen movement, which Ankara accuses of being behind the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. He faces up to 35 years in prison.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdogan, promptly retorted the Trump’s remarks.

“We are used now to Trump’s tweets. He is acting as if there is no judiciary system in Turkey,” said AKP Spokesman Mahir Unal during an interview with private NTV news channel.

“We have our courts here and the court will decide on the pastor and we will all respect it. It is not Trump but the court that will decide on the faith of this cleric,” he added.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in the third largest city in Turkey.

The U.S. State of Department also released a statement saying the entire government is “following Mr. Brunson’s case closely.”

“We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair and transparent manner,” it said.

Last May, at a face-to-face meeting with Erdogan in Washington, Trump called for Brunson’s release, the White House said at the time.

But Erdogan suggested that his fate could be linked to the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkey has repeatedly demanded his extradition, while the U.S. always refuses citing lack of sufficient evidence.

“Give us the pastor back, they say. You have one pastor (Gulen) as well. Give him to us,” Erdogan said in September.

“Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you,” he added.

Gulen denies any role in the 2016 coup, which killed 250 people. A state of emergency has been in force since then.
Brunson appeared in court for his first hearing in Izmir on Monday, where his lawyer said the pastor, detained 18 months ago, was in custody because of his religious belief in a Muslim country.

“I want the whole truth to be revealed,” Brunson told the court.

“I reject the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities,” he said.

Prosecutors presented a lengthy indictment saying Brunson had been using missionary activities as a cover to work with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist movement blacklisted by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU as a terrorist organization, as well as the Gulen Movement, labelled as a terrorist group by Ankara.

They also claim that Brunson passed along state secrets and intelligence that might be useful in the event of an armed conflict, such as the location of railway stations.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey,” Brunson said, rejecting the charge of his involvement in the Gulen Movement.

Turkish judges refused to release him and fixed the date of the next hearing on May 7.

Brunson’s trial is just one of the several legal cases roiling U.S.-Turkish relations.

The two countries are at odds over U.S. support for the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, as Turkey considers the militia a terrorist organization and launched a military campaign against it in late January, raising fears that Turkish and American troops could come face-to-face in a potential conflict in war-torn Syria. Enditem

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