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Secret witness testifies against NC pastor in Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) A witness testifying anonymously against a U.S. pastor accused of spying and terror-related charges in Turkey claimed May 7 that the American helped Kurdish militants and aimed to create a Christian Kurdish state, the country’s state-run news agency reported.

Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson forcefully rejected the claim in the second session of his trial, insisting he never permitted “politics to enter the church,” the Anadolu Agency reported.

The 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, faces up 35 years in prison in Turkey on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage.”

He denies any wrongdoing.

Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the political unrest. Gulen denies any knowledge of the failed coup.

Anadolu said a “secret witness” — described as a former parishioner and codenamed “Serhat” — testified via a long-distance system and claimed that Brunson helped Kurdish militants in various ways, including those fighting in Syria. He also claimed a Syrian who converted to Christianity helped Brunson.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for decades, forcefully rejected the claims.

Anadolu quoted Brunson as responding: “These accusations are shameful and disgusting. There is not one photograph or tape recording praising the PKK at the (Izmir) Resurrection Church. Our church had several Turkish followers. Our doors were open to everyone. I strived to prevent politics entering the church.”

Brunson later requested his release from jail, saying he wanted “go home,” Hurriyet newspaper reported.

The court adjourned the trial until July 18 and ruled that he remain in jail.

The case has strained ties between Turkey and the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted in Brunson’s defense last month, saying: “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”

Trump added: “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!”

The Trump administration later warned Turkey that it is considering punitive “consequences” if the NATO ally does not throw out the charges or acquit Brunson.

Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has campaigned for Brunson’s release insisting he is innocent, attended court May 7 and said the 11 hours of proceedings “were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of.”

“Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable,” Jolly said in a statement.

“The truth is that this case is part of a larger decline in personal freedoms, including religious freedom and human rights, that we are witnessing in Turkey in recent years,” she said. “We are looking to the Turkish judiciary to uphold pastor Brunson’s innocence.”

Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years.

Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison sentence for crimes Brunson is charged with committing in the name of Gulen’s group and the PKK. They want the pastor to serve another 20 years if he also is found guilty of obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes, using his religious work as cover.

The indictment against him — based on the testimony of witnesses, including three secret ones, and digital evidence — claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord in Turkey.

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