On Dec. 29 in Izmir, Turkey, a court of law officially rejected an appeal of Pastor Andrew Brunson’s imprisonment. Brunson graduated from Wheaton in 1988 and has been a missionary in Turkey since the 1990s. He is currently being held in an Izmir prison under erroneous charges of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”
“Holding a missionary on false terrorism charges sets a new and dangerous precedent,” said President Philip Ryken, a fellow member of the class of ‘88. “As we pray for the persecuted church, we should remember that this brother and his family depend on our friendship and support through prayer.”
According to World Watch Monitor, at least 100 Christians have been deported, denied visa renewal or denied re-entry over the past four years. However, Brunson’s arrest is the first time in over a decade that the Turkish government has ordered a foreign Protestant legally involved in Christian ministry to be detained for an extended period of time and jailed without explanation.
Christianity Today reported that the Turkish government wrongfully accused Brunson of having ties to a movement that instigated a military coup on July 15. Although the Turkish President blames cleric Fethullah Gülen for the coup, there is no evidence backing this claim, and Gülen denies any ties to the movement.
For 23 years, Turkey was home to Pastor Brunson, who lived in the largely Muslim nation as the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church. But for the past 97 days it has been his prison. Turkish officials first detained Brunson as a “threat to national security” in October; his ordeal continues with the recent rejection of his appeal.
The Brunson family’s nightmare began on Oct. 7, when Pastor Brunson and his wife Norine were summoned to a local police station. The Brunsons went willingly, hoping they would receive long-awaited permanent resident status in the country they had called home for more than two decades. Instead, both Brunsons were taken to the Harmandali Detention Center in Izmir, told they were risks to national security and would be deported.
Nearly two weeks later, on Oct. 19, Turkish officials granted Norine Brunson permission to remain in Turkey and released her from the detention center. They did not deport her husband either — instead, Pastor Brunson remained in the detention center, held without charges for another 51 days during which officials denied him a Bible, an attorney and visits from his family. On Dec. 9, Pastor Brunson was taken to a counterterrorism center and presented for the first time with the terrorism charges which now keep him in prison in Izmir.
The false allegations against Pastor Brunson are serious and could lead to years of further imprisonment. As his Turkish attorney works with him to clear obstacles to justice — which include lack of access to the files on Brunson’s case, strictly monitored visits, and limited communication between Brunson and his family or anyone outside the prison — Norine Brunson and many other Wheaton College alumni connected through Facebook are working to mobilize prayer on Pastor Brunson’s behalf.
“Although we were not close friends, Andrew and I were on Fischer 3 East together,” Ryken told The Record. “Our Wheaton connection has made his plight seem more personal to me. I have been writing to him regularly, even though I don’t know if any of my postcards will reach him.”
Political pressure is also in play; congressman Peter Roskam, who represents Wheaton and the sixth district of Illinois in the United States House of Representatives, has denounced Turkey’s actions regarding Pastor Brunson both publically and in a letter to the Turkish ambassador. He is working to build a coalition in Congress to aid his efforts to apply pressure to the Brunson case.
“Andrew Brunson, a Wheaton College grad, has been unjustly imprisoned in Turkey,” Roskam wrote on Twitter last year on Dec. 15. “He should be released immediately.”
According to the American Center for Law and Justice, the Turkish government has been “cracking down” on Christians in recent months; these measures are likely a part of efforts to identify and punish suspected collaborators and participants in July’s attempted coup against the Turkish government. Although Pastor Brunson has been pastoring Izmir Resurrection Church for years, a fact fully known by the local authorities, his status as a Christian missionary puts him at greater risk for targeting by officials.
The Brunsons continue to ask for support through prayer as Pastor Brunson remains in peril, dealing with the discouraging uncertainty of his situation.
“To have things take a turn for the worse on December 9 was a crushing blow,” Norine Brunson wrote in a Facebook post on Jan. 2, after a face-to-face visit with her husband. “Please pray that the Lord will no longer remain silent, but will make his presence felt and do something very special for [Andrew].”