Why Turkey Released Pastor Andrew Brunson

The American pastor detained for two years in Turkey was as much a symbol as he was a defendant.

This was always how it was going to end. US Pastor Andrew Brunson is released, despite being sentenced to a three-year jail term in Turkey, based on time served in detention. He flies home to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and heads to the White House to meet the president. Meanwhile, in the Twittersphere, Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are still talking their bullish talk, only now it’s about the great strategic relationship that can be built between two allies, as long as they respect each other.

For those seeking a victory for liberal values, it’s an odd one. Pictures beamed around the world showed Pastor Brunson head bent in prayer with President Trump, the firebrand Republican who vowed to get him out. President Erdogan simply tweeted, with sanguine self-evidence, that this was simply a matter of judicial procedure. What could he add? Did he have to repeat that this was a criminal case, one he could not influence?

If we assume a level of political involvement in the judicial process, then why now? Perhaps simply because the point had been made. Turkey held the keys, and due to its mounting displeasure with the Americans, it made them wait.

It has also been argued that the pressure of US sanctions and the crippling downturn of the Turkish lira could have made further delay unbearable. Possibly, but the political point was more important than economic side-effects.

It is also worth noting where Brunson sat within the Turkish context, which has been generally ignored in the emphasis on Turkish angst about US intransigence over the extradition of Fethullah Gulen — an exiled Turkish Muslim cleric— and his support for Syrian Kurds.

Pastor Andrew Brunson Is Symbolic

Andrew Brunson was the pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church and had been working in Turkey for more than 20 years. Let’s think about that. An American evangelical pastor working in the anti-Erdogan bastion of Izmir. This is Turkey’s third city and it sits halfway down the Aegean coast in prime holidaymaker territory. Izmir has a highly secular character and is the one major urban stronghold of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Pastor Brunson’s church may have only claimed around two dozen members, but as a symbol of everything the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not, he’s hard to beat — a proselytizing Christian American living in Izmir. It should also be remembered that he has become as much a symbol in the US as in Turkey. Trump not only prayed with him for the cameras, but claimed that he galvanized America with his strength and faith.

Despite the profile, it wouldn’t normally explain his arrest and detention, but then Turkey post-coup in 2016 was not a normal place. It was a place on edge. It made someone like Pastor Brunson highly suspect. His profile would have made him unwelcome anyway, but given the very ambivalent US reaction to the attempted coup, his position was more precarious still.

The AKP leadership, in many cases quite literally, fought for their lives. They believed the plot to be perpetrated by followers of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania. The US not only sent mixed signals during the coup attempt, they also refused to extradite Gulen. In the circumstances, Turkey had little leverage, but one simple trick might well have been to lock up a local Christian pastor.

The charges of supporting, though not belonging to, terrorist organizations like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Hizmet movement of Gulen are the standard charges of the post-coup era. Do they fit with Pastor Brunson? Not particularly. A Marxist separatist guerrilla movement and a global Islamist movement are not natural bedfellows with a US pastor. Look more to the circles in which he mixed for the answers.

Now that Brunson has departed, the interaction between Trump and Erdogan will continue in their usual posturing manner. As I wrote in Fair Observer in August, this is not a reset in Turkish-American relations, but more of the same.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Nathaniel Handy