The plight of one American Christian evangelist is suggestive of the turmoil that lies ahead for Turkey.
As chronicled by the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Brunson’s situation is like a twig that gets caught up in a wind-driven storm, pushed this way and that by competing currents.
Fides news service reported in mid-December that Brunson, former head of the Evangelical Church of the Resurrection in Izmir, was arrested on suspicion of being part of the Hizmet organization of Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Gülen has been living in the United States since 1999 and is suspected by Turkey as the instigator of a failed coup last July.
As Journal columnist Sohrab Ahmari explained, Gülen’s followers for years “worked hand-in-hand with [Turkish President Recep Tayyib] Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party to purge the country’s secular establishment. The relationship soured in 2013, however, and a power struggle ensued between the rival Islamist camps…. Under the pretext of rooting out Gülenists, the government has jailed or fired tens of thousands of police officers, prosecutors, judges, journalists, educators and members of the armed forces.”
In mid-October, Fides reported, Brunson was summoned along with his wife, Norine, by the Turkish immigration office. Authorities initially ordered the couple to leave the country, charging them with having received funds from abroad to finance missionary initiatives and putting at risk the security of the country with their activities.
After a secret witness accused Brunson of belonging to the “Fethullahnista terrorist organization,” the deportation order turned into an arrest. Norine was released after two weeks, but her husband was held in the immigration-detention facility for another two months, including two days in solitary confinement.
The couple has spent 23 years preaching the Gospel in Turkey and have reared their children there. Until now, the Brunsons have had “zero issues,” their lawyer told the Journal.
Ahmari maintains that Brunson’s treatment is “symptomatic of growing Christian persecution in Turkey.”
“Turkish President Erdogan sees anti-Christian conspiracy theories as an effective strategy for galvanizing popular support for his one-man rule,” he quotes Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament, as saying. Erdemire is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A pro-government columnist in July claimed that Mr. Gülen’s mother is Jewish and his father an Armenian. Mr. Gülen himself “is a member of the Vatican Council” who “uses the methods of the Jesuit Order that captured the Vatican.” Another columnist the same month asked whether Gülenists might be hiding “in churches.” Still another tabloid doctored photographs to suggest Mr. Gülen is a Roman Catholic prelate.
Mr. Erdogan’s defenders insist the president has no say over what’s printed in the papers. But that’s hard to believe in a country where the state has banned at least 120 news outlets in six months. Nor is the government’s own rhetoric much better. At an anti-coup rally in August, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denounced Turkey’s enemies as a “crusaders’ army.”
A senior Turkish official countered that religion has nothing to do with the action against Brunson. “There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Turkey who freely exercise their religion,” he said.
But there are other cases like Brunson’s, Ahmari pointed out. Authorities have expelled a number of evangelical missionaries in recent months and shuttered a Protestant church in Antakya for offering “unauthorized” Bible courses.