WASHINGTON — As US pastor Andrew Brunson went on trial in Turkey for alleged ties to terrorism and espionage, a group of Christians gathered just outside the White House gates to pray for his release and protest his captivity.
"Hebrews 13:3 says this: 'Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them and those who are suffering, you suffer along with them,' " Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, told CBN News at the prayer vigil.
"Pastor Brunson has faithfully served Turkey for 23 years in Christian love, mercy, and compassion," Mahoney continued. "Today, he begins a trial which may put him in a Turkish prison for 35 years. We are here to pray for justice in that Turkish courtroom today."
Watch the full interview with Rev. Pat Mahoney below:
Mahoney added, "But we are also here to stand in solidarity with Pastor Andrew Brunson and the persecuted church around the world, and also to challenge our president, who has been good on this issue, to call for the immediate release of Pastor Brunson should the trial not go as we hope."
Turkey accuses the 50-year-old North Carolina native of having ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. It also alleges he has ties to a network of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the Turks accuse of launching a coup attempt in 2016.
Gulen now resides in Pennsylvania. When President Trump asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year to release Brunson, the Turkish leader said he would likely release Brunson – if the US would hand over Gulen.
On the first day of his trial, Brunson denied the alleged ties to Kurdish terrorists or Gulen's network. "I don't accept any of the allegations or accusations," he told the court.
In fact, he pointed out the absurdity of the idea he'd be in cahoots with these Islamic groups, saying, "I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different."
He went on to say, "I haven't done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years."
Meanwhile, The American Center for Law and Justice has been working both in Washington and at the United Nations for Brunson's freedom.
As his trial began, the ACLJ released a statement, saying, "Pastor Andrew is innocent. He is no terrorist. He is a father, a husband, and a peaceful man of God. But he is facing what could amount to the rest of his life in prison."
The US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis were both on hand in Aliaga, Turkey, for Brunson's trial. Brownback said outside the pastor's prison, "You'll continue to see very high-level US government interest in this until he is released."
Commenting on Brownback and Tillis being in Aliaga, Mahoney told CBN News, "It seems to us that was an exceptionally good sign. It would be hard to believe that with the ambassador for international religious freedom in Turkey, that it would give this pastor 35 years. But it's a reminder: Every six minutes a Christian dies for their faith around the world. It's the most persecuted religion in the world."
Mahoney concluded, "We here in America need to stand and speak up and be a loud, prophetic voice for religious freedom and human rights around the world, especially with our Christian brothers and sisters."
Mahoney then showed his solidarity with the imprisoned Brunson by getting himself arrested for praying and protesting in an officially-designated no-protest zone just outside the White House gates.
Mahoney and his fellow prayer warriors are using the hashtag #freepastorandrew.