An American pastor standing trial in Turkey on allegations of aiding terrorist groups is “a totally innocent man,” US President Donald Trump said on Saturday, The Daily Caller reported.
“We have Pastor [Andrew] Brunson, a wonderful Christian pastor, and he’s right now in Turkey. He’s been there a long time. And they say he’s a spy, but he’s not a spy,” Trump said during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Trump made the remarks during a meeting to celebrate the release of Joshua Holt, a Utah man who was jailed in Venezuela in 2016 on accusations of being a CIA spy. Holt, 26, had traveled to Venezuela to marry a woman he met online.
Trump said his administration was also fighting hard for Brunson, who the Turkish government has also accused of being a CIA spy.
“Pastor Brunson — I hope you can hear us — we’ll be helping you at some point. We’ve been working on it for a while. He’s been there a long time, and he’s a totally innocent man,” Trump said.
“We’re going to all work, and we’ve been working for his release. He’s having a hard time. There’s a trial going on, but the trial is not so much of a trial. And we’re talking to the folks in Turkey about doing something about it,” the president added.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, is currently standing trial on charges of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as supporters of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who has been living in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999.
He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted on charges that also include espionage.
Gülen is accused by the Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of orchestrating a July 15, 2016 coup attempt, a claim strongly denied by Gülen and the movement he inspired. Erdoğan has pressed the Obama and Trump administrations to return Gülen, but American authorities have said they have yet to see evidence showing the imam was involved in the putsch.
Brunson is being held as leverage to obtain Gülen’s extradition, Erdoğan has publicly stated.
“The US should look at the steps it has taken and comply with the extradition treaty if it wants American Pastor Brunson,” Erdoğan said in an interview with a Turkish television outlet.
“Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gülen] to us. … Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you. The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can easily give him to us. You can hand him over right away” Erdoğan had said in a speech last year.
Brunson was arrested along with his wife in October 2016 in Izmir, Turkey, where the couple ran a small Christian church.
Turkish authorities refused for months to reveal details of the case against Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for 23 years when he was arrested. A secret witness had evidence Brunson helped Kurdish groups and groups that support Gülen, Turkish authorities have claimed.