President Donald Trump has voiced his support for a United States evangelical pastor who has been in jail in Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, since October 2016 on charges he was linked to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in the country.
Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” he added.
In May 2017, Trump raised the issue of the same US pastor during his first face-to-face meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Washington DC.
After the two presidents met, the White House confirmed: “President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.”
Mr Brunson had been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city. Brunson and his wife, have three children now studying in the US.
Mr Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases hurting US-Turkish relations.
Mr Brunson’s lawyer said the pastor is in custody because of his religious beliefs.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s Izmir city prosecutor’s office said sufficient evidence had been obtained to charge Mr Brunson with aiding armed terrorist organisations and obtaining confidential government information for political and military espionage.
A copy of Mr Brunson’s indictment accuses him of working both with Mr Gulen’s network and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group which has waged an insurgency in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said he believed Mr Brunson would ultimately be acquitted and there was no reason for his continued detention during trial.
Additional Reporting by Reuters.