The Turkey that was long said to be shining proof that Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive is a thing of the past. In his more than a decade-long reign, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has managed not only to undermine the military apparatus that held the Islamic forces at check, but has also systematically eliminated and surpassed those who criticized him or were perceived as threats.
Last July, a failed coup attempt gave the Erdogan government the excuse needed to consolidate more power by blaming an “external” influence. Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish imam, preacher, and influential political and religious figure living in the United States since fleeing Turkey in 1999, was blamed for infiltrating the Turkish military and the government. Erdogan claimed that Gülen’s influence had to be cleansed wherever it may be, real or imagined. Thus the witch hunt began.
Thousands of academicians, judges, teachers and journalists found themselves either behind bars or without a livelihood unless they bowed to the new master. As Erdoğan’s tyranny evolved, it was inevitable that Christians would feel the sting of his newly-found sword in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup.
In October 2016, a Christian pastor and his wife were taken into custody for constituting a “national security risk”. Andrew and Norine Brunson had been living in Izmir (Smyrna) over twenty years. The small Protestant church, Izmir Resurrection Church, has less than fifty members. On October 7, 2016, the couple answered to a summons from the local police station. They were detained upon arrival, starting a grueling journey through Turkish bureaucracy and the criminal system, in which habeas corpus, human rights, and innocent-until-proven-guilty are little more than nuisances to be discarded at will.
Brunsons’ legal representative was denied access to his clients—even after having produced necessary documents—with the government claiming that Andrew and Norine had signed a document declining representation. There have been occurrences of detention of other Americans living in Turkey in the past, in which Christians have been perceived as threats to public order or to national security. However, lawyers have been able to stay deportation orders through the use of judicial review. Since the declaration of “state of emergence” after the coup attempt, the rule of law that allowed legal counsel and judicial review has been violated regularly.
On October 19th, Turkish authorities released Norine, but continued to hold Andrew in a detention center without any communication with the outside world. During those thirteen days, the lawyers and the US consulars had been unable to have contact with the Brunsons. No reason was given for their detention or deportation order other than the couple allegedly constituting a “national security threat,” for which no proof was offered.
Sixty-four days after the initial detention, Andrew Brunson appeared before the court for the first time. The prosecutor accused him of being a member of an armed terrorist organization. The charges, originating from a “secret informant”, emphasized allegations of Brunson’s link with the Gülen movement. Brunson’s lawyer, who saw his client for the first time, was denied access to the prosecution documents. The judge sent Andrew Brunson to prison with nothing but the word of the secret informant.
In January, the initial appeal was rejected, even though no formal charges were yet filed against the pastor. During his recent trip to Ankara, Secretary of State Tillerson met with Norine Brunson. Tillerson was told that an indictment was soon to be issued.
In March, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Brunson’s case will expedited, but he also mentioned the Obama administration’s refusal to extradite Gülen. Even though Yildirim said he was not establishing connection between the two incidents, there have been speculations that Brunson is being held and used as a bargaining chip to extradite Gülen.
“I plead with my government – with the Trump Administration – to fight for me,” said Andrew Brunson in a statement he gave to the US Embassy officials recently. After six months of imprisonment without any evidence, he has very few avenues left to gain his freedom.
The Erdogan government is exploiting the widespread fear that all Christians are—and all converts have become—traitors to their country. Islam does not teach a distinction between the political and religious realm. “Caesar’s to Caesar, God’s to God” is a maxim that belong to Christianity, not Islam. When no such distinction is taught or known, the political allegiance of those who leave the religion of Islam is also under question. This is not only true for converts, but also for the foreigners who do Christian work in Turkey. They are always under suspicion as their work to spread the Gospel is perceived as nothing more than a desire to undermine the state. In addition, the Crusades and the Turkish War of Independence are used as evidence that Christianity is a politically expansionist ideology much like Islam, and therefore being Muslim is a part of Turkish national identity. Thus Christians, convert or not, are inherently dangerous to the nation.
Now that Erdogan has free reign over the country, he can cite almost everything as a national security threat, and Christians are very vulnerable to his expanding power. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion can easily be dismissed for the greater good of the country since Islam doesn't recognize either liberty. This comprehensive worldview is a key reason Andrew Brunson has been in prison without any evidence and without proper legal representation since last October. In the eyes of the Turkish government he is a foreign agent who has been living in Turkey for 23 years, working to undermine Turkish society and to bring about the eventual decline of the Turkish State.
While many Western governments are doing nearly everything possible to appease Muslims living in their countries, Christians can be taken into custody and imprisoned without any proof in Turkey, the most secular of the Muslim countries. While Erdogan declares that the headscarf ban in parts of Europe started a war between the cross and the crescent, his government does not extend basic human rights to religious minorities in Turkey. Unlike previous Turkish governments, which sought good relations with the West, Erdogan is not beholden to anybody. He is aware of the weaknesses of the West and also the strength of Turkey in a region in which the United States and the crumbling European Union have lost much influence. The Sultan-Caliph wanna-be has used Islamic ideology, taken advantage of Western naiveté, and created a more united country, making life much harder and unpredictable for all the minorities in Turkey. If he continues to consolidate his power, Pastor Andrew Brunson will not be the last of his victims.