President Trump said Thursday that the United States would impose “large sanctions” on Turkey for its detention of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held for nearly two years on terrorism-related charges who U.S. officials say is innocent.
In a tweet, Trump called Brunson “a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being” and demanded his immediate release.
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His comments on Twitter echoed a stern warning from Vice President Pence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a speech in Washington earlier Thursday. Pence said Erdogan should allow Brunson to return to the United States “now or be prepared to face the consequences.”
On Wednesday, a Turkish court ordered that Brunson be freed from prison and placed under house arrest while his trial continues, according to Brunson’s attorney.
“This is a welcome first step, but it is not good enough,” Pence said during remarks at the close of a three-day conference on religious freedom at the State Department. “I know that his faith will sustain him, but it shouldn’t have to. Pastor Andrew Brunson deserves to be free.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly pressed the Turkish government to release Brunson, 50, a longtime resident of Turkey who was swept up in a campaign of mass arrests that followed a coup attempt against Erdogan in the summer of 2016.
He was among 20 U.S. citizens arrested and charged after the failed coup.
While the decision to place Brunson under house arrest could be a step by the Turkish government toward resolving his case — for instance, by deporting him — he remains on trial. He faces charges that include espionage and collusion with terrorist groups and is banned from travel, according to the court order.
There was no immediate response from Erdogan, who was attending a summit in South Africa on Thursday.
But in a blunt rebuke on Twitter, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”
Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish American political scientist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called it the worst crisis between Ankara and Washington since 1974, when President Gerald Ford imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in response to its invasion of Cyprus.
The tweets by Trump and remarks by Pence – which amounted to an ultimatum — had Erdogan in a difficult bind.
“I don’t see how Erdogan can climb out of it,” he said. “Pence and Trump have left him no graceful exit except to release Brunson following U.S. threats, and lose face in Turkey.”
Erdogan’s advisers “seem to have done a bad job explaining to him how the world outside of Turkey functions,” he added, including the separation of powers in the United States.
The war of words over Brunson’s fate has been the most visible manifestation of an increasingly troubled relationship between the United States and Turkey, and a sign that warm personal ties between Erdogan and Trump have not been sufficient to paper over the significant policy differences between the two governments.
After Trump took office, Turkish officials spoke confidently about their ability to repair what had become a strained relationship during Barack Obama’s tenure, for reasons that included differences over Syria and the U.S. alliance with Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey regards as part of a terrorist group.
But the arguments over Syria continued under Trump, as did a feud over the fate of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has accused Gulen of planning the 2016 coup attempt and demanded his extradition. In a speech last year, Erdogan suggested that Gulen could be traded for Brunson, bolstering criticism that Turkey was engaged in hostage diplomacy.
The Justice Department, which is tasked with evaluating any evidence provided by Turkey for presentation to a U.S. federal court, has not taken any action in Gulen’s case.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the failed coup.
Brunson, 50, a Christian missionary from North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for 23 years. He was detained in October along with his wife, Norine Brunson, though she was released.
The indictment, based on evidence provided in part by three secret informants, accuses Brunson of acting in coordination with Gulen’s organization as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. It also accuses him of attempting to convert Kurds to Christianity.
Kareem Fahim reported from Istanbul. Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.American, amp039large, detaining, impose, pastor, sanctionsamp039, Trump, Turkey, years