Brunson: pastor at centre of Turkey-US row and market turmoil

Stuart Williams and Fulya Ozerkan in Aliaga
US pastor Andrew Brunson was freed after his detention sparked a crisis between Turkey and its NATO ally the United States

It could seem fanciful to draw a link between the fate of an American pastor in Turkey, a crisis between two NATO allies and turmoil on global financial markets.

But Andrew Brunson, a Protestant clergyman who lived in Turkey for a quarter of a century, has spent months at the centre of a bitter row pitting Washington against Ankara that caused the lira to crash and raised new questions over Turkey's strategic orientation.

A court Friday convicted Brunson on terror-related charges, sentenced him to over three years jail but allowed him to walk free and leave Turkey, potentially ending one of the worst bilateral disputes between the NATO allies in years.

Brunson's world was turned upside down on October 7, 2016 when he and his wife Norine were arrested in a government crackdown following a failed coup bid in July that year aimed at toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Norine was released two weeks later but Brunson was kept in jail and then charged with assisting two organisations regarded by Turkey as terror groups: the group of Fethullah Gulen blamed for the putsch and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Brunson, who marked his 50th birthday behind bars on January 3, had faced up to 35 years in jail.

His arrest received relatively little media coverage at the time and efforts by US officials to release him were given initially only a very low profile in public.

But his continued detention turned into one of the biggest bones of contention in the increasingly troubled relationship between Turkey and the United States.

The tensions reached a peak in August when President Donald Trump announced trade sanctions against Ankara, sending the lira into a tailspin and raising fears of a full-blown economic crisis.

- 'I love Turkey' -

Brunson's Evangelical Presbyterian Church describes him as a "teaching elder" who moved to Turkey in 1993 as part of a missionary programme.

According to his own testimony, Brunson arrived in the Aegean city of Izmir in 2000 and opened his Dirilis (Resurrection) Church a decade later. A small, easily missed building, it counted just a few dozen congregants.

"I was not engaged in any secret activity. The state always watched us," he said in court.

"I haven't done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years."

Brunson was sent from jail to house arrest in late July but the move added to rather than defused tensions, with US officials bitterly disappointed he had not been allowed to return home.

American reports alleged that Turkey had reneged on an agreement, although this has been vehemently denied by Ankara.

Speaking in perfect Turkish, Brunson told the court he "forgives" those who provided testimony accusing him of links with the PKK and Gulen's group.

"I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey," he said in his final defence.

- 'Total disgrace' -

Turkish officials insist that the case has been misportrayed in Western media and Brunson had serious charges to answer.

"Shame on you, shame on you. You are exchanging your strategic partner in NATO for a pastor," Erdogan said.

But the US has insisted Brunson is an innocent man who is being unfairly held on the most absurd charges based on dubious testimony by "secret" witnesses whose identity was never revealed.

Trump has repeatedly tweeted his support for Brunson, describing him as a "fine gentleman", a "Christian leader in the United States" and a "respected US pastor" whose continued holding by Turkey was a "total disgrace".

The row has become symbolic of a malaise between the two nations that extends far further than this case.

Turkey is furious that the US has failed to hand over Gulen to face trial and also over the conviction and imprisonment of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla for busting US sanctions against Iran.

In another less publicised issue, the US is also watching the case of NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in February on terror charges, a term reduced to five years last month.

Turkish officials have rejected claims that Ankara engaged in "hostage diplomacy" by jailing Brunson in the hope of winning US concessions elsewhere.

Yet in September 2017, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

"They say 'give us the pastor'. You have a preacher (Gulen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back," Erdogan said.