Secret witness testifies against US pastor in Turkey

Secret witness testifies against US pastor in Turkey
Secret witness testifies against US pastor in Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – A witness testifying anonymously against a U.S. pastor accused of spying and terror-related charges in Turkey claimed Monday that the American helped Kurdish militants and aimed to create a Christian Kurdish state, the country’s state-run news agency reported.

Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson forcefully rejected the claim in the second session of his trial, insisting that he never permitted “politics to enter the church,” the Anadolu Agency reported.

The 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, faces up 35 years in prison in Turkey on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage.”

He denies any wrongdoing.

Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the political unrest. Gulen denies any knowledge of the failed coup.

Anadolu said a “secret witness” – described as a former parishioner and codenamed “Serhat” – testified via a long-distance system and claimed that Brunson helped Kurdish militants in various ways, including those fighting in Syria. He also claimed that a Syrian who converted to Christianity had helped Brunson.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for decades, forcefully rejected the claims.

Anadolu quoted Brunson as responding: “These accusations are shameful and disgusting. There is not one photograph or tape recording praising the PKK at the (Izmir) Resurrection Church. Our church had several Turkish followers. Our doors were open to everyone. I strived to prevent politics entering the church.”

The case has strained ties between Turkey and the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted in Brunson’s defense last month, saying: “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”

Trump added: “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”

The Trump administration later warned Turkey that it is considering punitive “consequences” if the NATO ally does not throw out the charges or acquit Brunson.

Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years.

Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison sentence for crimes Brunson is charged with committing in the name of Gulen’s group and the PKK. They want the pastor to serve another 20 years if he also is found guilty of obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes, using his religious work as cover.

The indictment against him – based on the testimony of witnesses, including three secret ones, and digital evidence – claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord in Turkey.

A Turkish soldier guards the entrance to the prison complex in Aliaga, Izmir province, western Turkey, where jailed US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson is appearing on his trial at a court inside the complex, Monday, May 7, 2018. The 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, faces up 35-years in prison in Turkey, on charges that he aided terror groups and engaged in espionage. The pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church denies any wrongdoing. (DHA-Depo Photos via AP)