Turkish American relations remain turbulent. Over half a century of strategic partnership is on a knife’s edge. US training and arming of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) coupled with Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen are feeding Turkish fury.
Washington, for its part, is calling the continued detention of two Turkish nationals employed, respectively, at the US consulates in Istanbul and Adana, “unlawful” and is demanding their immediate release.
The US Congress is especially incensed by the incarceration since October 2016 of North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson and is working on a set of proposed sanctions on Turkey. There is bipartisan support for these sanctions but the State Department is insisting that diplomacy be allowed time.
Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara last month where he announced the establishment of a dialogue mechanism that is meant to smooth relations. The first meeting to be held as part of the new mechanism—on Syria—was convened today in Washington.
Legal matters, including Gülen’s status and detained US citizens and US mission staff—is expected to be tackled next. But in the meantime, Brunson, who is being held on charges of alleged links to Gülen and involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt, is rapidly deteriorating both physically and mentally.
The growing consensus is that he is being held hostage in exchange for Gülen.
Erdoğan appeared to say as much when he declared at a public event last year “You [the United States] have a priest [Fethullah Gülen] we have one too” and went on to suggest that an exchange could occur.
Jeffrey Jeremiah, the state clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America, which Brunson is affiliated with, spoke exclusively to Diken about his case.
Could you kindly tell us a little about yourself?
I am Jeffrey Jeremiah. My title is the state clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. I am the ecclesiastical and the executive head of our denomination. I served as a pastor of local churches for 26 years before I came to this position in 2006. The title “stated clerk” comes from the 17th century and it’s in contrast to an Anglican Bishop. Bishop is “high” and a “clerk” is lowly.
Part of the spirit of humility that informs your denomination?
Where are you from?
I lived in the Washington DC area for 25 years and in fact the first church I served was in Bethesda Maryland and I then moved to a church in Seattle Washington and I was there for 12 years and then due to the nature of my work when I became the stated clerk because I travel so much I have maintained my home in the Seattle Washington area.
Who is Andrew Brunson? Is he a missionary?
Technically in our church he is not a missionary. We have a department of our church which is the missionaries of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Andrew is not a part of that department. Andrew is an ordained minister in our church who holds his membership in our presbytery in North Carolina. But his ministry is not in North Carolina. It is in Turkey. Technically he is not a missionary. On our records, it says Andrew is a member of our presbytery and he is the pastor of the Resurrection Church of Izmir, Turkey.
Was he proselytizing?
I really don’t know. Andrew is committed to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others. But what I have been [mainly], aware of where his recent activities and they were all of a humanitarian type of nature due to the refugee situation from the Syrian civil war.
What kind of humanitarian work was he doing exactly?
This is second hand from months ago because I haven’t revisited this but it was to help provide basic human needs: food, shelter and clothing and the like.
To Syrian refugees in Turkey?
Is that why he would have travelled to the southeast regions of Turkey where there are also Syrian refugees?
Is he personally known to you?
What have you heard about him? What kind of a person is Andrew Brunson?
He is an unusual person in terms of his commitment to his call that God gave him to come to Turkey. Many of our missionaries, when their children reach high school age, they come home for a time to get their kids through high school and then send them off to college. The Brunsons stayed in Turkey. They have been there since 1993. He is a highly educated man. He has earned a PhD as well as a master’s degree in theology. A master’s degree is a minimum requirement for ordination as a minister. He has been in our church since 2010. But his Church in Izmir, the Resurrection Church, is not a part of our denomination.
Can you walk us through that?
There is an association of Protestant Churches in Turkey and its people in that association who have testified to Andrew’s character, to his commitment to the gospel and that he’s been non-political.
So he was operating under their umbrella in Turkey rather than reporting directly to you?
He is ultimately under the authority of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He would be working in association with other leaders there in Turkey. On the local level those are the ones he is working with, and accountable to on a daily basis. The best way to put is that if Andrew did anything that was inappropriate the Evangelical Presbyterian Church would find out about it from this local group and we would be the ones who would have to take action to address any problems.
And there have never been any problems.
No, no, no.
Why do think the Turkish authorities arrested him?
I think you know that Andrew and Norine went to the police station on the 7th of October because they had applied for permanent resident status in Turkey which I think communicates their commitment to their ministry and to the Turkish people. And they thought they were going to the police station to receive approval for this resident status. They had been out of the city [Izmir] and when they came back home, and I don’t know whether it was by mail or by message or whatever, but they were asked to come to the police station. And that was it. Instead of receiving their visas, they were detained as a national risk.
And why do you think the Turkish government did that?
I am not an expert on Turkish politics or on the Turkish people. I can tell you that the majority of those detained all were foreign nationals and that Norine, after about two weeks, she was released.
So, it wasn’t just pastor Brunson who was detained?
Oh no. There were others.
Were there other Americans?
Not that I know of. The other nationalities were told that if they promised to leave the country that they would be released.
Did Pastor Brunson refuse to leave?
He was never made that offer
So, is Pastor Brunson a political hostage?
(Long pause) I know that he has being held as a believer in Jesus Christ and I would leave it to others to decide how to designate that.
Are you saying you think he is being held because of his Christian faith?
I think he is being held because he is a Christian and he is an American.
How is he doing?
I know that after a second round of charges were filed against him in August he was moved from one prison to the other and in the second prison his conditions are better. Previously he had been in a cell area that was built for 12 to 14 people. And there were as many as 22 in that cell. He is now in a smaller cell but there are two others.
Who are they?
I know they are both Muslims but I don’t know their names.
Sandra Jolley, the Vice Chairwoman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom visited him recently and reported that his mental and physical health were deteriorating.
Yes, he has lost 50 pounds. I cannot imagine what Andrew is dealing with on a day to day basis. I know the person from the State Department said at the Helsinki Commission hearing in November that his conditions are adequate.
Who was the person from the State Department?
Jonathan Cohen. And CeCe Heil who is representing Andrew legally, her comment was “well, if he has adequate conditions there, the reason that he’s lost 50 pounds is because you have an innocent man who has been in jail, for at that point in time, 13 months and what would that do to you psychologically and emotionally, to know you are innocent and yet there’s been no charges filed.”
What was Cohen’s response?
Well you see Cohen effectively gave his testimony, answered questions and left. The hearing got quite a bit of publicity because Andrew’s daughter, Jacqueline, she testified at this hearing as well. Senator Tom Tillis of North Carolina, he hosted that particular hearing on the Hill.
Do you believe the US government is doing enough to secure Andrew Brunson’s release?
Are you not answering because you are concerned that that you may compromise his position, is that why you are choosing your words so carefully?
I understand there are some differences in opinion within the Church and the Administration about how to approach this, with some advocating getting tougher with Turkey, by imposing sanctions for example, and others arguing in favor of appeasement and diplomacy. Which approach do you favor?
It strikes me when Andrew gets home the government has succeeded. [Jeremiah’s voice starts to break, his eyes tear up] Until he gets home there’s more to be done. [The US Charge d’Affaires in Ankara] Philip Kosnett is a member of the same Church in Montreat North Carolina that Andrew’s parents belong to
What is the government doing that you are aware of?
I’ve been told that whenever a representative of the US government is interacting with a representative of the Turkish government that Andrew’s situation is being brought up.
Would you say that his being moved to this other, more comfortable cell is a result of that pressure?
I think that as we know President Erdoğan offered an exchange of Andrew for [Fethullah] Gülen.
Did he also do that in private meetings with US officials?
No that’s public. I think it was important for Andrew to enjoy better living conditions because he was of better value to the Turkish government…
You mean of better value alive rather than dead?
So, then he is a hostage?
Where does the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) which is campaigning for Brunson’s release fall in terms of the best approach?
I do not know because our interaction with the ACLJ has been very minimal.
Have you been in touch with President Trump, or with the White House?
We have been in touch with people in the Administration. But you see [the ACLJ’s Chief Counsel] Jay Sekulow works at the White House.
How does that affect Brunson’s case?
I wish I knew. I am taking it on faith that they are doing the best they can do in order to get Andrew out. I know that President Trump pressed Andrew’s case as did the Vice President [Mike Pence] when they met with President Erdoğan on May the 16 of last year. It’s my understanding that Vice President Pence brought up his name first.
Is Vice President Pence a member of your congregation?
Vice President is not from the same Church. He describes himself as an evangelical Roman Catholic. He does have a number of close personal friends and connections to our church and particularly to one of our larger churches in Indianapolis which is where he lived before he became Vice President.
So, do you have hope that Andrew Brunson will be freed any time soon? Before Gülen is extradited to Turkey?
Well, I don’t see how an exchange is going to take place. Because we are a nation of laws and unless there is conclusive proof that Gülen must be extradited then that is a non-starter.
Have you contacted Gülen?
Me? Oh no! All I know about him is what I read in the press.
You are a man of faith, a spiritual person, a servant of God. Gülen says he is too. If you were in his place and you had seen so many people suffering, being punished, being jailed just for mere association with him and his movement, would you have gone back to Turkey and turned yourself in to the Turkish authorities if you knew this would end their persecution?
It’s very difficult for me to answer that because I am not a Turk and the Turkish justice system is foreign to me.
As a matter of principle, if you felt this would help your flock would you turn yourself in to protect them?
(His voice begins to shake again)
If going to Turkey to meet with officials of the Turkish government would help get Andrew released, I would fly there as soon as possible.
Have you spoken to Brunson’s wife Norine?
We normally correspond via encrypted email.
How is she?
She is a woman of incredible faith and courage who is continuing to provide leadership to their church and is faithfully seeing her husband every week.
Do you pray for him?
I am constantly praying for him. My constant prayer is that he does not lose hope.
And has he?
He has been in some deep deep valleys that the Lord has brought him through and he does know that he is not forgotten.
What is your message for the Turkish government?
I wrote to President Erdoğan in late December. I wrote in summary that” in the name of Jesus who came to bring peace, please honor the peace of this servant who has committed himself to Jesus Christ and to the Turkish people to help them. Please release Andrew Brunson.”
How did you deliver the letter?
We mailed it directly to President Erdoğan
Do you think he received it?
I did not receive a response.
And what is your message to the Turkish people?
He is a faithful man of God who has given his life to help and serve the Turkish people.
Did he believe in dialogue between Muslims and Christians?
He would absolutely have had to give that he went to minister in a predominantly Islamic country.