Turkish courts last week charged U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson with “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” transferring him to a high-security prison after two months in solitary confinement in a detention center. The pastor – who has lived and preached in Turkey for over twenty years – has become the latest victim of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) campaign of intimidating Christians in the aftermath of the abortive coup in July.
Turkey’s state of emergency, in place since the coup attempt, has undermined due process in the country, making it almost impossible for Brunson to defend himself. The pastor had no access to legal counsel during his two-month detention. His attorney, who is not allowed to see the case files, cannot meet him in private as authorities now deny attorney-client privilege. Authorities record Brunson’s meetings with his attorney, as well as the defense team’s notes. They also prevented the pastor’s access to U.S. consular officials, as the State Department noted with concern in its Turkey Travel Warning in October.
In response, lawmakers from the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) filed two parliamentary questions for the interior minister over the charges against Brunson and systematic deportation of other American pastors. U.S. advocacy organizations are also campaigning for the pastor’s release. So far, however, government officials have failed to answer any of the inquiries.
Brunson is not the only Protestant faith leader whom the Turkish government has targeted since the coup attempt. In October, authorities banned a Protestant church for conducting Bible study “without a permit.” The same month, officials from Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches said they had been questioned by police over their pastoral work. Soon after, airport officials issued a lifetime entry ban to an American Protestant missionary who headed a ministry in Ankara aiding Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Ankara’s intimidation tactics against Protestants increasingly resemble Iran’s ongoing persecution of Christians. As in the Islamic Republic, targeting a small Christian minority in a majority-Muslim country wins the government points from zealous supporters while also providing a bargaining chip in relations with the U.S. And since conspiracy-minded locals often view Protestants as an extension of the American government, their persecution also taps into the rampant anti-Americanism among Islamist and far-right segments of the AKP’s electorate.
The systematic targeting of American pastors is disturbing, particularly from a NATO member and European Union aspirant like Turkey. After 14 years under the Islamist-rooted AKP, Ankara continues to drift away from the Western values that those institutions represent. The country’s increasing rejection of transatlantic values – one exemplified by its appalling treatment of an innocent American faith leader – should raise serious questions in Washington about the future of its ties to Turkey.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.