Pastor Andrew Brunson, freed Friday after being detained in a Turkish prison for nearly two years, flew home to the United States on Saturday, hugged his children on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews outside Washington and then headed to the White House, where he knelt in prayer as he held his hand on the shoulder of President Trump.
The Oval Office visit punctuated a tumultuous two days for the soft-spoken Brunson, 50, who on Friday did not know what his fate would be and feared that he would be sentenced to as many as 35 years in prison.
“From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours, that’s not bad,” Trump said.
The pastor, a longtime resident of Turkey, had been arrested along with thousands of other people after an unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt. He was accused of aiding the movement led by the alleged mastermind, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is a political foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Brunson was also indicted on charges of having contact with Kurdish separatists who have been designated as terrorists by Turkey and the United States. Brunson and the Trump administration have said the charges were bogus.
“It was hard for him, and really the Lord pulled him through,” his wife, Norine, said near the close of the White House gathering.
The pastor had been out of prison and under house arrest in Turkey since July. On Friday, a prosecutor asked that Brunson be convicted of the charges and sent back to prison. The judges found him guilty but then sentenced him to time served and removed a travel ban.
The pastor then had to act quickly. Under Turkish law, the prosecutor could appeal the verdict, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had witnessed the trial proceedings in Turkey on Friday.
“There was a window there, and we needed to get him out of the country before Erdogan or somebody there changed their mind,” said Perkins, who had observed Friday’s trial in his capacity as a commissioner of the U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom.
They raced back to the Brunsons’ apartment, gathered belongings and hurried to the airport while Turkish media swarmed. A military plane took off Friday night and spirited them to Germany. When Brunson landed overnight in Germany, Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, presented him with an American flag. The pastor held it up to his face and kissed it.
Brunson was taken to a U.S. military hospital in Germany on Friday night, where he was examined. After a few hours of rest, the Brunsons and Perkins flew back to the United States.
Brunson’s release had been a top priority for evangelical Christians, and Trump is celebrating the pastor’s return as a diplomatic coup for his administration.
He tweeted on Saturday morning, “It will be wonderful to see and meet him. He is a great Christian who has been through such a tough experience. I would like to thank President @RT_Erdogan for his help!”
At the White House, Brunson thanked the president for helping secure his release.
“You really fought for us, unusually so,” Brunson told Trump. “From the time you took office, we know that you’ve been engaged.”
The United States and Turkey have extensive military and security ties but have had a fraught relationship marked by distrust in recent years.
U.S. officials and others close to the case had signaled that Brunson might be released imminently after negotiations that included the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Turkey. The agreement grew out of talks at last month’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, attended by Trump and Erdogan.
Trump on Saturday insisted that he had made no concessions to Erdogan to secure Brunson’s release.
“We’ve been negotiating long and hard. We do not pay ransom in this country, at least any longer,” he said in the meeting with Brunson. He said the only real deal was a “psychological” one: “We feel much different about Turkey today than we did yesterday. . . . I think we have a chance of becoming much closer to Turkey.”
Trump claimed the disappearance and suspected killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Consulate in Istanbul had nothing to do with the timing of Brunson’s release from prison this past week.
Asked whether the two events were related, Trump replied, “It’s a total coincidence,” though he allowed that the confluence was “interesting.”
The White House event was attended by a throng of senators and administration officials. Brunson thanked many of them for their efforts to free him, and he told the president that he and his family pray for him often.
“I need it probably more than anybody in this room,” the president quipped. The pastor then went on one knee and prayed that the president be blessed with “supernatural wisdom.”
When the reverential moment was over, Trump rather abruptly looked at Norine Brunson and asked her whom she had voted for in the presidential election — before admitting that he already knew she had voted for him.