Pastor Andrew Brunson's Detention in Turkey and the Events that Led to it

By Ashley Solo

A failed military coup in Turkey led to the arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for decades.[1] The July 2016 failed coup was an attempt to oust Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power and at least 161 people were killed in the turmoil.[2] Following the event, President Erdogan launched a crackdown against his political enemies including an Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is based in Pennsylvania, but has many followers in Turkey.[3]

President Erdogan has viewed Gulen “as his primary foe.”[4] Gulen is considered a moderate Muslim by his supporters, known as Gulenists, who subscribe to the popular Hizmet movement.[5] President Erdogan has placed the blame on Gulen for the July 2016 attempted coup.[6] President Erdogan called on the United States and then President Obama to arrest Gulen or extradite him to Turkey.[7] From the United States, Gulen denied any involvement in the attempted coup, even going as far to suggest that the whole ordeal may have been staged.[8] Turkey has also accused Gulen of running a terrorist organization, as Hizmet is now “officially designated as a terrorist group” in the country.[9]

Though there was no evidence that Gulen or any of his groups or followers were involved in the coup, Erdogan still demanded that Gulen is returned to stand trial.[10] In late August of 2016, American officials traveled to Ankara to discuss the potential extradition; however, the Obama administration maintained that Turkey did not yet provide persuasive evidence showing that Gulen was responsible for the coup.[11] Ironically, Gulen and Erdogan had been close allies until a falling-out in late 2013.[12] Currently, some have even classified Gulen and his group as “one of the government’s favorite targets,” leading to speculation that Erdogan would target Gulen whether he played a part in the coup or not.[13] In the past, Erdogan has said he would pursue members of the Gulen religious movement whom he accuses of attempting to topple the government.[14] Prior to the coup, Erdogan had accused Gulen of “conspiring to overthrow him by building a network of supporters in the media, judiciary and education”; charges, which Gulen denies.[15]

Pastor Andrew Brunson became entangled with this controversy because Turkey accused him of supporting the Gulenists and spying against Turkey on behalf of ethnic Kurds.[16] He was also accused of attempting to establish a Christian Kurdish state in Turkey.[17] Brunson, an evangelical pastor, had run a small Resurrection Church in Izmir, Turkey.[18] Throughout the 24-month detention,[19] Brunson denied all the charges.[20] Many analysts suspect that Turkey was using Brunson to pressure the United States to extradite the 77-year-old Gulen back to Turkey.[21] To date, neither the Obama nor the Trump administration have complied with the extradition requests.[22]

For several months, the United States and Turkey have been in negotiation concerning the pastor’s fate.[23] In April 2018, 66 U.S. Senators signed a letter informing President Erdogan that the U.S. would take action if Brunson was not released.[24] In July 2018, Brunson was removed from jail and placed under house arrest.[25] Despite the progress, relations between the two countries became even more strained once the Trump administration realized securing the Pastor’s full release would be harder than initially expected.[26] Trump had threatened numerous times to impose sanctions on the NATO ally unless Turkey freed Brunson.[27] The two countries came close to securing Brunson’s release in July until President Erdogan “held out for a guarantee that there would be no further prosecutions against Turkey for sanctions violations.”[28]

On October 12, 2018, a hearing was held in Turkey’s Western province of Izmir.[29] Some witnesses reportedly withdrew previous statements.[30] That day, the Turkish court ordered Brunson’s release and allowed him to fly home.[31] He had been accused of aiding terrorists and spying and was sentenced to 3 years 1 month and 15 days in prison.[32]

Brunson’s release signals “a truce of sorts in a heated diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the United States.”[33] Brunson’s detention and trial had worsened tensions between the two countries.[34] President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had both personally discussed the case several times with President Erdogan.[35] Furthermore, the US government imposed financial sanctions against Turkey and members of Congress attended his trial in Turkey.[36] When President Trump was asked if U.S. sanctions imposed on Turkey might be lifted, Trump told reporters that there was no deal made with Turkey over Brunson’s release.[37]

Around twenty more Turkish-Americans had also been arrested after the 2016 coup attempt and American officials say that these detentions are an attempt by Ankara “to gain leverage in its various disputes with Washington.[38] One of the individuals detained, Serkan Golge, is a NASA scientist with dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship.[39] Golge was visiting Turkey in July 2016 with his wife and two sons when he was detained by police after being accused of being involved in the failed coup.[40] Golge was tried in Turkish court and convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to a seven and a half years in jail.[41] The U.S. maintains that these charges lack credible evidence.[42] Golge’s wife, Kubra has also been banned from leaving Turkey with her sons aged two and seven and the family had to sell their home in Texas.[43] The prosecutors in his case alleged that Serkan Golge was also a supporter of Gulen.[44] Ismail Kul, another Turkish-American, was also jailed following the failed coup.[45] Kul, a college chemistry professor, was on vacation in Turkey when the coup occurred.[46] Though Kul has been released, he is still banned from leaving Turkey.[47]

On October 12, as the judge announced the decision in the Brunson case, Brunson wept.[48] Before the ruling, he told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey.”[49] Americans have been watching the Brunson scenario unfold, but will have to wait and see the fate of other Americans who are currently detained.

[1] Cristina Maza, Who is Pastor Andrew Brunson? Why Turkey Arrested American and why he’s now Free, Newsweek, Oct. 12, 2018.

[2] Turkey’s Coup Attempt: What you need to know, BBC News, Jul. 17, 2016; Maza, supra note 1; Amy La Porte, Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, Who is Fethullah Gulen, the Man Blamed for Coup Attempt in Turkey?, CNN, Jul. 16, 2016.

[3] Maza, supra note 1.  

[4] Id.

[5] La Porte, supra note 2. Hizmet “is a global initiative.” Gulen supports what The New York Times has considered “a moderate, pro-Western brand of Sunni Islam that appeals to many educated and professional Turks.” Hizmet has founded nongovernmental organizations including “hundreds of secular co-ed schools, free tutoring centers, hospitals and relief agencies.”

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Carlotta Gall, Turkey Frees Pastor Andrew Brunson, Easing Tensions with U.S., The N.Y. Times, Oct. 12, 2018. Dylan Matthews, Turkey’s Coup: the Gulen Movement, Explained, Vox, Sept. 13, 2016.

[10] Matthews, supra note 9.  

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Turkey Officially Designates Gulen Religious Group as Terrorists, Reuters World News, May 31, 2016.

[15] Id.

[16] Maza, supra note 1.

[17] Id.

[18] Gall, supra note 9.

[19] Id.

[20] Maza, supra note 1.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Gall, supra note 9.

[24] Kristina Jovanoski, Wife of NASA Scientist Jailed in Turkey ‘Frustrated’ by Trump’s Focus on Pastor’s Case, NBC News, Jul. 30, 2018.

[25] Maza, supra note 1.  

[26] Id.

[27] Jovanoski, supra note 24.

[28] Gall, supra note 9.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.


[32] Id.

[33] Id.  

[34] Id.

[35] Id. President Trump invited Brunson to come to the White House following his release.

[36] Id.

[37] Ezgi Erkoyun & Emily Wither, Freed Pastor Brunson Leaves Turkey, Due in U.S. Saturday, Reuters World News. Oct. 12, 2018,

[38] Gall, supra note 9.  

[39] Jovanoski, supra note 24.

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Turkish Court Rules to Release US Pastor Brunson, CNBC World Politics, Oct. 12, 2018.

[49] Id.