Trump administration officials said Thursday that the US had struck an agreement with Turkey to release North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson from prison and return him to the US within days.
According to a report on NBC News, the agreement was reached “recently,” and the release is expected to come after a Friday hearing in Turkey’s top court leads to the dropping of espionage charges against Brunson.
Brunson, a longtime resident of Turkey, has been under house arrest since October 2016 on terror and espionage allegations. He denies the claims against him made by Turkish officials.
Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted of aiding groups considered to be terrorist by Turkey — including one led by Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish preacher whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for a failed 2016 coup attempt.
The pastor, who has run a small evangelical Protestant church since 1993 in the western city of Izmir, has become a cause celebre for US President Donald Trump’s conservative Christian base.
Trump has doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum and sanctioned two senior Turkish officials, leading to a plunge in the value of the country’s lira currency.
If Turkey follows through on the purported agreement, that economic pressure will be eased, the US officials told NBC News.
“The Trump administration, however, isn’t fully confident that Turkey will follow through with the Brunson agreement because Ankara was close to a commitment to release him several months ago but did not,” the outlet reported Thursday, citing a senior administration official.
“We continue to believe Pastor Brunson is innocent, and the hearing on Friday is another opportunity for the Turkish judicial system to free an American citizen,” the outlet quoted another unnamed senior administration official as saying.
The Thursday comments come a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was hopeful that Turkey would release the pastor soon, ending a two-year detention that has shaken relations between the one-time allies.
“I’m very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson, he and his wife, will be able to return to the United States,” Pompeo said in response to a question as he accepted an award from a pro-Israel group.
“President Trump has had a focus on it, the administration has had a focus on it, and we’re very hopeful that we’ll see a good outcome before too long,” Pompeo told the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.