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78 U.S. lawmakers call for release of jailed pastor

WASHINGTON (BP) — A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers have signed a letter calling for the release of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen believed to have been jailed for his Christian faith in Turkey where he had pastored more than 23 years.

The chairman and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee are among 78 signatories of the letter calling for Brunson’s release, Senate committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a Feb. 16 press release. Brunson, formerly of Black Mountain, N.C., has been held since October 2016 on accusations of being a member of an armed terrorist group.

“The United States and Turkey have benefited from a close partnership for decades, and we hope to be in a position to continue strengthening these ties,” reads the letter sent Feb. 15 to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Now is the time for our countries to reaffirm respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law while reasserting our shared commitment to addressing security challenges through partnership and cooperation.”

The U.S. lawmakers urged Erdogan “to consider Mr. Brunson’s case and how the recent treatment of Mr. Brunson places significant strain not only on him and his family, but also on the robust bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey,” and appealed to Erdogan “to inquire as to the options for promptly deporting Mr. Brunson and to act on them expeditiously.”

Brunson, identified as an Evangelical Presbyterian by the Presbyterian Lay Committee, had led the Izmir Resurrection Church of about 40 worshippers in Izmir without government interference until he and his wife Norine sought to renew their Visas. Brunson is accused of having links with the Fetullah Gulen movement, blamed by the Turkish government for a failed military coup against Erdogan.

The pastor was reportedly detained 63 days since early October 2016 without charges at the Harmandali Detention Center in Izmir, before being imprisoned Dec. 9, 2016 at nearby Sakran Prison. Brunson’s wife Norine had also been detained, but was released Oct. 19 after the couple had reportedly been held in isolation two weeks. The Brunsons have three adult children studying in the U.S.

Joining Corker as signatories are U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate committee; U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), House committee chairman, and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), House committee ranking member. They are joined by 35 senators, including 27 Republicans and eight Democrats; and 39 representatives, including 34 Republicans and five Democrats, according to Corker.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is also advocating for Brunson’s release. In coordination with its European affiliate, the European Centre for Law & Justice (ECLJ), the ACLJ sent a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council (U.N. HRC) on Brunson’s behalf.

“One of the hallmarks of Turkey’s proud history is the respect for all faiths. Thus, Turkey should respectfully be reminded of its continuing obligations under its constitution as well as the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] to respect and value the freedom of religion,” reads the letter posted on the ACLJ website. “The ECLJ urges this Council to call upon Turkey to honour its obligations. The ECLJ further requests that the U.N. make every effort to ensure that Pastor Brunson is not only treated with great care, but that he is quickly released and allowed to return home without injury or delay.”

Brunson is the lone Christian among 19 prisoners contained in a 10-person cell, the ACLJ said on its website. His daughter Jacqueline Brunson, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is delaying her wedding in hopes of her father’s release, the ACLJ said.

An estimated 100,000 Christians live among Turkey’s 80 million people, said the International Christian Concern, also advocating for Brunson’s freedom.