Freed pastor seeks pressure on Turkey for religious freedom

Pastor Andrew Brunson's two-year detention in Turkey sent tensions soaring with the United States

A US pastor freed by Turkey after an intense campaign by Washington has called for greater international pressure on the country to promote religious freedom, which he said was in retreat.

"I think the West, on the whole, they have many things they can use for leverage, many pressure points, and one of the main ones is to have it on the agenda," Brunson told AFP on the sidelines of a major US State Department meeting on religious freedom that wrapped up Thursday.

"I would like to see more from Europe because they have the strongest trading ties with Turkey. They can use the influence they have to advocate for religious freedom," he said.

Brunson, who led a Protestant church in the Aegean port of Izmir for more than 20 years, was detained in 2016 in a sweeping nationwide crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed coup.

He was freed in October last year after President Donald Trump's administration announced a doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum, causing a sharp fall in the lira against the dollar.

Turkey is officially secular and recognizes its historic Christian communities, but Brunson said that the small Protestant community was facing growing difficulty.

Owing to the lack of official standing, Protestant churches are generally driven by foreigners who Brunson said were being forced out of Turkey at a growing rate.

"There is actually more freedom of religion in Turkey relative to other countries in the region. My concern is that it is heading in a negative direction," he said.

"I think it's primarily the leadership of the country. He has a more Islamist agenda," he said of Erdogan.

Brunson addressed a luncheon at the State Department where he expressed his fondness for Turkey and called himself a friend "who loves Muslims."

But he acknowledged that his goal was to convert them.

"I do not try to hide that my call is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ because I believe he is the only way to salvation," he said.