A pastor from NC is confined in Turkey. Free Andrew Brunson.

Pastor Andrew Brunson of Black Mountain, NC, arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, on Wednesday.
Pastor Andrew Brunson of Black Mountain, NC, arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, on Wednesday. AP

Andrew Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical Christian pastor from Black Mountain, served the people of western Turkey for more than 20 years. For that, the Turkish government threw Brunson in prison.

Turkey has accused Brunson of participating in a failed coup attempt in 2016, but has presented no credible evidence to back its charges. Turkey, a secular nation, has been a member of NATO since the 1950s and has been an important American ally. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once a promising leader of one of the few democracies with a Muslim majority (Turkey is more than 99 percent Muslim).

But in recent years, Erdogan seems determined to move from democracy to autocracy. He’s cracked down on the press, expanded his powers and limited personal freedoms. After the failed coup, the Turkish government “arrested, suspended, or dismissed more than 100,000 security personnel, journalists, judges, academics, and civil servants due to their alleged connection with the attempted coup,” according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

What does Pastor Brunson have to do with any of that?

Erdogan believes the leader of the coup attemp was Fethullah Gulen, a 77-year-old Turkish cleric who now lives in Pennsylvania. And like any insecure authoritarian, Erdogan is determined to bring Gulen back to Turkey to extract revenge. So Brunson, who founded the Izmir Resurrection Church in Turkey, is to Erdogan not a man of God but a bargaining chip.

“Give us that pastor,” Erdogan said last year, referring to Gulen, “and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one (Brunson).”

Brunson was in prison for 20 months and recently was released to house arrest. The North Carolinian, whose daughter graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in December, faces a prison sentence of up to 35 years if he is convicted at the end of his ongoing trial, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. Thom Tillis, R-NC, has done admirable work in bringing Brunson’s incarceration to the attention of the world. Tillis has visited Brunson twice in Turkey and takes to the Senate floor every week to remind his countrymen of Brunson’s plight. He also garnered the support of Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and James Lankford, R-Okla. Several House members from North Carolina also have pushed for Brunson’s release

“I heard that he was really concerned that maybe the American people would look at the indictment and believe it and forget him,” Tillis told The News & Observer’s Brian Murphy in April. “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.”

Tillis, who has observed part of Brunson’s trial, described it as “truly a kangaroo court” with secret witnesses.

In part because of Tillis’ efforts, President Donald Trump has taken up Brunson’s cause and increased the pressure on Erdogan. Last week, Trump said he was doubling tariffs on imported Turkish metals to punish Turkey for refusing to free Brunson; on Tuesday, Erdogan said Turkey would boycott U.S.-made electronic products. The Washington Post called it the worst crisis among NATO alllies in decades. Turkey has serious economic problems, so Trump’s leverage appears to be strong.

When a recent Post editorial criticized the Turkish government for imprisoning Brunson, among other things, Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. responded to the Post. He assured Americans that democracy was thriving in Turkey and they should have no concerns.

Absent from his 254-word letter was a single word saying that Turkey had any evidence that Brunson had committed a crime.