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Released from Turkish prison, Pastor Andrew Brunson urges Congress to heed others being held

Andrew Brunson prays with President Trump in October on the day he returned to the United States. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The first place Andrew Brunson went after he was released from imprisonment in Turkey was the White House, where he knelt on the floor of the Oval Office, put his hand on President Trump’s shoulder and prayed.

Nearly four months later, the American pastor — who claimed he was unfairly arrested in Turkey because of his religious beliefs — is still seeking to use the story of his ordeal as a starting point for advocacy.

He’s rapidly writing a book, which he says will be published in the fall. He and his wife, Norine Brunson, attended Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. (“Fun!” he said with a grin Wednesday morning, listing the Supreme Court justices and the senators he saw; “A lifetime opportunity,” Norine Brunson chimed in.)

On Wednesday, addressing a room packed with people in the bowels of the Capitol, he urged a few members of Congress, who came to shake his hand, and a larger group of congressional staffers to think more broadly of prisoners who remain in Turkish jails.

Brunson became a cause celebre during his imprisonment, in part because he was embraced by evangelical Christian leaders, who are close to the ear of Trump and Vice President Pence. On Wednesday, the former evangelical missionary said he believes the plight of Christians in Turkey is important — other missionaries have been deported, and the Turkish government’s claim that Brunson was trying to undermine the state has cast aspersions on all Christians in the mostly Muslim nation.

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But Brunson, who maintains that he had no ties to political groups and was just the pastor of a local church who lived in Turkey for more than two decades, urged congressional staff to think beyond the sympathy toward a Christian that motivated some to work on his behalf. “There’s a lot of bad stuff happening in Turkey right now, most of it not toward Christians but toward people who are accused of supporting Fethullah Gulen,” he said, naming the exiled Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of plotting against him.

He had 28 or 29 cellmates in his time in jail, Brunson said, and all of them were there because they had been accused of working with Gulen. “As far as I could tell, all of them were innocent. They were not involved in any activity to undermine the Turkish government,” he said. “I have many friends in prison in Turkey now who should not be in prison. And many families have been destroyed.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said at the event that he thinks his colleagues in the Senate are less informed than they should be about the work of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was instrumental in securing Brunson’s release. He didn’t know much himself about the bipartisan commission’s annual recommendations for policies to increase religious freedom in the worst international offenders, nor its effort on behalf of a small number of specifically identified prisoners worldwide — until his wife became one of the commissioners.

If the United States doesn’t advocate for these prisoners, Manchin said, “There’s not another country in the world that will stand up and take our place.”

Gayle Conelly Manchin, the senator’s wife, spoke of two prisoners in Iran she is personally advocating for, as well as the happy outcomes when the commission helps obtain a person’s freedom such as that of Brunson. “This weekend, the Brunsons' daughter is getting married,” she said. “Rev. Brunson will be there to walk his daughter down the aisle. They will be a family, living in freedom again.”

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Brunson urged the officials to keep advocating as fiercely as they did for him for other Americans, who are dual citizens and remain in Turkish prisons. “It’s good to continue remembering them, because I don’t think any of them are guilty, either. May they not be forgotten,” he said.

He praised the commissioners, who were the first people, after his wife and his Turkish lawyer, to visit him in prison. The appearance of two American officials, he said, heartened him to know “that I was not forgotten.”

“I don’t know how many countries have this emphasis on religious freedom, not just in their own country but around the world,” he said.

Tony Perkins, who in his role as president of the conservative Family Research Council usually wades into culture-war fights over religious prerogatives, said that his role as a commissioner on the U.S. CIRF gives him a glimpse into some of the most effective bipartisan efforts he has seen in Washington. Perkins was at Brunson’s final court appearance in Turkey, and he accompanied him on the jubilant trip back to the United States.

Witnessing religious persecution elsewhere in the world strengthens his resolve to fight different battles in the United States about religious freedom — which aren’t about unwarranted detention but about schoolchildren’s bathrooms and bakers' approaches to same-sex weddings and craft store employees' birth control and a host of other topics. “We see here in America, we’re still working to preserve, protect and understand religious freedom,” he said. “It underscores why we need to preserve and protect what we have here, because it’s unique. It is different.”