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'I am very discouraged': American Pastor Marks 500 Days in Turkish Prison

02-19-2018

American pastor Andrew Brunson has been locked up in a Turkish prison for 500 days. The anniversary of Brunson's captivity passed quietly Monday, but the American Center for Law and Justice is still aggressively working on his case.

"He still remains merely a suspect of alleged crimes; no indictment has yet to be handed down," CeCe Heil, executive counsel for the non-profit organization, told CBN News.

The ACLJ is fighting on Brunson's behalf and reports the pastor wrote a heartfelt note to his wife through an embassy official this month.

"I am very discouraged. Please have prayer for me," Brunson wrote. "I love you – can't handle the thought of growing old in this place, without you."

"I think being trapped in a Turkish prison with really no end in sight has been hard on Pastor Brunson," Heil said. "Of course he has his faith to sustain him and the prayers of faithful believers all over the world... but as you can imagine, this 500 days in prison, he's lost quite a bit of weight."

"He's obviously gone in and out of just kind of discouragement, wondering what's going to happen, what's the end game here," she added.

Heil said the accusations against Brunson range from membership in an armed terrorist organization to espionage and overthrowing the government.

"So very ridiculous claims against an innocent pastor," she said.

Heil explained to CBN News that under Turkish law, Brunson can remain in prison for seven years without ever being charged. 

Testifying at the US Helsinki Commission hearing late last year, she said, "Pastor Brunson maintains his innocence and denies all the accusations."   

Is Brunson a political hostage of Turkey? Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to indicate that the pastor will only be released when Washington gives Turkey a Muslim cleric living in the US who is Erdogan's rival.

"..they (the US) get up and say... 'Give us so and so cleric,'" Erdogan said at a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara in September, referring to Brunson.

Erdogan then brought up Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, saying, "You have a cleric there. You give him to us and we'll give you this one."

Turkey has been seeking the extradition of Gulen, who was once Erdogan's ally, and whose supporters have been blamed for trying to overthrow Erdogan's government in 2016.

Gulen has denied any role in the coup attempt. 

Heil said Erdogan even recently talked about a swap.

"It certainly seems that Pastor Brunson has become a political pawn," she told CBN News. "He lived 23 years in Turkey without any incident, without any problem."

"After the failed coup attempt in July of 2016, then Pastor Brunson's suddenly arrested as a national security threat and then remains in prison," she continued.

"And just recently, President Erdogan has demanded a swap, basically saying a cleric for a cleric or a pastor for a pastor," Heil said. "You have Fethullah Gulen; we have Pastor Brunson. Let's do a swap."

But she doesn't believe the US will agree to the deal.

"I don't believe that the US will ever trade prisoners; that's not the way that we typically operate," she told CBN News. "So I believe they'll keep following through with Turkey, who is a NATO ally and continuing to demand his release."

Heil said President Donald Trump has repeatedly asked for Brunson's release. In addition, just last week, she said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and again asked for the pastor to be freed   

"It seems like this meeting last week between Tillerson, Erdogan and Cavusoglu, it seems like they came out of that meeting hopeful that the US-Turkey relationship will be restored," Heil said. "So we're hopeful that Pastor Brunson will be part of that resolution."

In the meantime, Heil said the most important thing people can do for Brunson is pray for him, but she also encourages taking action by signing an ACLJ petition, "Free Pastor Andrew," which has more than 426,000 signatures so far.

"That's very helpful because as we speak to our government as well as Turkish government and European government, it's very helpful just to show the mass amount of people who have their eyes on this matter and are concerned about this matter and are demanding his release," she said.

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