July 25, 2018
Of all the heartbreaking stories told at yesterday's religious freedom ministerial, Pastor Andrew Brunson's still weighs heaviest on the minds of most Americans. The North Carolina dad, who's become the face of international persecution in this country, got some unexpected news Tuesday night: his days in a dark and isolated prison cell were numbered. Just a week after ordering him back to jail until October, the Turkish government announced unexpectedly that it was moving Pastor Brunson to house arrest.
Although no one is quite sure when the transfer will take place, his attorney, Ismail Halavurt, told the media that the report was legitimate. The Brunsons, he explained, were "elated" at the news that Andrew wouldn't have to spend another day alone, behind bars. Instead, they may finally be able to walk through this process together, as a family. For Pastor Brunson, who's struggled through depression and anxiety, being reunited with his wife and children would be a great relief in this nightmarish ordeal. But, as several leaders, including my colleague on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, pointed out, this is no substitute for Andrew's full and quick release.
"This is welcome news," said USCIRF's Kristina Arriaga, who was in Turkey for the most recent trial. "...But it is not enough. The Turkish government has deprived this innocent man of his due process rights and liberty for too long, and it must completely release him. If it fails to do so, the Trump administration and Congress should respond strongly and swiftly with targeted sanctions against the authorities responsible." She's right. When such a fundamental freedom is trampled on, the United States can't do business with Turkey with any level of confidence. This is a NATO ally that isn't acting like a NATO ally -- largely because of the hardening of the Islamic view there. The more the country clamps down on religious minorities, the more incompatible it is with the NATO mission.
Senators James Lankford (R-Okla.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who've been the most vocal advocates of Brunson, released a joint statement earlier today calling the move "a step in the right direction." It will, they hope, "help alleviate some of the unacceptable hardship and anguish Pastor Brunson and his family have endured over the last 20 months. The government of Turkey should now release Pastor Brunson and immediately return him to the United States, an action that would begin to restore the longstanding friendship between our two nations."
Meanwhile, for the delegations at the State Department this week, the announcement was just another reminder of how important their work is. Pastor Brunson's daughter, Jacqueline, who had just given an emotional speech at the event the day before the news broke, says that her family has been forever changed by what's happened to them. Stopping to wipe the tears off her cheeks, she gathered herself and told the audience how her dad continues to show Christ's love, even under the worst conditions. Choked up, she struggled through his words at last week's trial in Turkey. "Blessed am I as I suffer for Him. Blessed am I as I am slandered. Blessed am I as I am lied about. And blessed am I as I am imprisoned. Blessed am I to share His suffering."
When Pastor Brunson was first put behind bars, he was very concerned that he'd be forgotten by the U.S. Under the last administration, he probably would have been. But this president is working harder than anyone -- not just to free him -- but to bring hope to millions of persecuted people around the world. This president has promised: we will not leave Americans behind. But we will also never leave the hurting without a voice.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.