Sen. Thom Tillis flew to Turkey last month to assure a North Carolina pastor that the American people would not forget about him as he awaited trial onaccusations of espionage and aiding terrorist groups.
Tillis flew there again this week to witness first-hand the marathon first day of the trial of Andrew Brunson, a Christian missionary from Black Mountain. And, if he can work out his Senate schedule, Tillis plans to return early next month for the next stage of the trial.
The 48-year-old Brunson has spent much of his adult life in Turkey, where he created the Izmir Resurrection Church. Izmir is located in on the west coast of Turkey, across the Aegean Sea from Greece. Brunson was arrested in October 2016 after the failed July coup attempt on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan responded by declaring a state of emergency to increase the government’s powers and jailing tens of thousands of government officials, journalists, political opponents and others. Brunson, who was in North Carolina at the time of the coup, was among those arrested.
“I heard that he was really concerned that maybe the American people would look at the indictment and believe it and forget him,” Tillis said of his initial trip last month. “It was important for me to go over there, face-to-face visit him in prison and tell him that that’s not going to happen.”
It certainly hasn’t. Brunson’s plight has become a national story, attracting attention from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Monday’s start of his trial attracted not only Tillis, who sat through 13 hours of court proceedings, but also former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, the nation’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Brownback attended part of the proceedings before meeting with Turkish officials in Ankara, Tillis said.
“It was truly a kangaroo court,” Tillis said, detailing a no-jury trial with secret witnesses and scant evidence being held in a basketball arena-sized courtroom. “Not fair at all.”
Brunson defended himself for six hours, Tillis said, denying that he had any ties to terrorist organizations. Tillis said the government contends that people saw Brunson talking to members of the Kurdish minority in Turkey or to people associated with one or two groups the government says are terrorist organizations. He said the evidence includes the theory that members of the Mormon church visited Brunson — and, Turkish officials claim, Mormons are there to be agents for people who work with the Kurds or the PKK, a Kurdish group that has been in conflict with Turkey for decades.
“Why on Earth would anybody who thought they could get swept up in all these apprehensions, why on Earth would they travel back to this country?” Tillis said of Brunson and his wife’s decision to return to Turkey from North Carolina after the coup attempt.
Brunson’s wife Norine remains in Turkey, and Tillis met with her during his most recent trip. He said she is being supported by the 50 or so members of the church, but she will not return to the United States out of fear of not being able to get back to Turkey. Other family members are in the United States, worried that if they go to Turkey they will not be able to leave.
“He’s really reached a low point in terms of just the mental stress, the conditions he’s been under,” Tillis said. “Part of this is making sure that we kind of lift him up as he’s going through this.”
Tillis said judges ordered Brunson back to a crowded jail cell — 21 people in a cell built for eight — and then admitted they’d made the decision before any testimony was taken.
“We really feel like based on the judge’s demeanor and the way that he spoke that we’re not hopeful for a good outcome on May 7,” Tillis said.
Many U.S. observers suspect Turkey is hoping to trade Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, a 76-year-old Turkish politician who split with Erdogan several years ago and now resides in Pennsylvania. Erdogan has blamed him for the 2016 coup attempt, and Turkey has sought to have him extradicted.
“This whole idea of exchanging Pastor Brunson for Gulen is absurd,” Tillis said.
Tillis is the co-leader of the Senate’s NATO Observer Group. Turkey is a member of NATO, though its recent crackdowns and other moves have many in the alliance concerned.
“I’d rather be having a constructive discussion about strengthening our alliance. I’d rather have a more constructive discussion about improving our trade relationship. But none of those discussions are going to occur, at least I’m not going to facilitate those discussions, as long as Pastor Brunson is in prison,” he said.
Rep. Patrick McHenry has circulated a letter in the House of Representatives and Tillis is working on one in the Senate to express congressional disapproval of Turkey’s actions with regards to Brunson. Tillis said Congress is considering other options, including legislative action.
“There are a number of other concerning positions that Turkey has taken that’s going to make them very different from almost any other member of NATO,” Tillis said, referring to Turkey’s consideration of a Russian missile defense system. “They’re on a trajectory that’s very concerning, both as a trading partner and as a NATO ally.”