‘A living martyr’
Held in Turkey on charges of espionage and terrorism, facing a life sentence for doing the work of the church, American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s dramatic release was the work of high-powered diplomacy and prevailing prayer
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DANIEL OF THE YEAR
The sun competes with autumn leaves for dazzle on a late October morning in Black Mountain, N.C. Orange and black streamers line fences ready for Halloween, and an oversized spider looms black and quasi-menacing over a collection of pumpkins and hay bales in the town square.
In February a motorcade bearing the body of Billy Graham, the evangelist known as “America’s pastor” who died at his home here, departed from this mountain retreat of 8,000 residents en route to Washington, D.C. Eight months later and with less fanfare, another and more recently renowned American pastor—Andrew Brunson—made the trip in reverse.
After meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office and traveling to New York for televised interviews, Brunson with his wife Norine and family members returned to the church and community they and generations of mission-minded pastors have called home.
Halloween regalia gave way to hand-made posters welcoming them along the road to Montreat, a Presbyterian retreat and conference center. The return to North Carolina marked the end of a 6,000-mile journey from Izmir, Turkey, where the Brunsons served for 23 years as missionaries and church planters.
Jailed in October 2016 and subsequently charged with espionage and terrorism, Andrew Brunson found himself catapulted to the center of global headlines and U.S.-Turkey relations. Norine, jailed briefly then released, never left Turkey, knowing she might not be allowed to return to support her husband. Now they were home to family and friends.
Inside Christ Community Church, fellow churchgoers jammed the fellowship hall, eating cake and drinking coffee while standing in line to greet the couple. Children waited, too, shyly, for an opportunity to tell the freed Brunson they had prayed for him. Each time, he took their hand and thanked them, then asked if he could pray for them too, and did.
Brunson’s case grew to encompass the hottest-button issues of foreign policy and to pit against one another two long-standing NATO allies. For Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demonizing the 50-year-old Christian became a way to burnish his rising reputation among hard-line Islamist allies in the region, while in effect holding Brunson hostage for hoped-for U.S. concessions.
For President Donald Trump, whose evangelical base helped him win the 2016 election and continues to offer fervent support, securing the pastor’s release became a priority, reassuring believers at home while signaling resurgent American muscle in the shifting alliances of the Middle East.
But the case Turkey built against Brunson also put the pastor at the center of a worldwide church movement. Thousands mobilized in congregations as far removed as Brazil, Israel, and China to pray for his freedom. His dramatic release on Oct. 12 came after 21 months in various prison cells and nearly three months under house arrest in Izmir, constantly under government surveillance and confined by a state-ordered travel ban.
Throughout the ordeal, Brunson had no assurance he would be set free. He lost 50 pounds during the first year. In letters to his family, he wrote candidly of his fear and brokenness. He faced charges that could mean 35 years in prison, the equivalent of a life sentence.
“Sometimes it’s harder to live for God than to die for God,” he said following his release and homecoming. “I would rather have been in heaven than in prison.”
In that darkness Brunson said he made a decision: “I would keep talking to God and running after Him. I would be a living martyr.”
From his prison cell near Izmir, Brunson penned a four-stanza hymn, “Worthy of My All,” later distributed by his own Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination (EPC) and sung in churches around the world. “The song was a declaration of the things I was doubting,” Brunson said. “I sang that every day as a declaration to God.”
When it came time to defend himself in the courtroom before Turkish judges, an international press corps, and a watching world, Brunson in the face of death challenged authorities and made candid professions of Christian faith: “I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’ name.”
For his perseverance in the face of long imprisonment and his determination to be a “living martyr,” Andrew Brunson is WORLD’s 2018 Daniel of the Year.
FRIENDS IN HIGH SCHOOL felt certain Brunson was bound for the mission field. He spent much of his childhood in Mexico City where his parents, Ron and Pam Brunson, served with World Witness, the mission arm of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). Brunson completed high school in North Carolina after his father took a position at Montreat College. The elder Brunsons, now both in their 70s and still active in missions training, went on to serve in Russia and Pakistan.
“He seemed dislocated when he came to the U.S.,” said Karen Newton-Fogo, a classmate at Ben Lippen School in Asheville, N.C. “He was very globally minded and tuned in to the downtrodden, not like the rest of us.”
Newton-Fogo said Brunson also possessed a dry sense of humor he has kept into adulthood. For summer classes and jobs, she would pick up Brunson because he had no car. Brunson would wait until she began driving to eject her favorite cassette tapes and insert his: usually the British rock band Supertramp. Thinking of his jokes on their drives while Brunson was in prison, she said, often made her cry.
Brunson aced classes where others struggled. “He was the one who could wait until the last minute to study and get better grades than those of us who stayed up all night,” Newton-Fogo said.
When Brunson met Norine at Wheaton College, friends saw a perfect match. Norine also was a missionary kid and attended high school in Germany at Black Forest Academy. “They grew up in the church and in missions, and excelled at the things they did, both speaking multiple languages before they went to Turkey,” said Newton-Fogo. “I feel like God prepared them all their lives for the moment of imprisonment and notice, to survive what they experienced.”
Brunson, who finished his degree at Wheaton in three years in 1988, was the student who most regularly rose early for Bible study and prayer, said college roommate Ford McArver, who also roomed with Brunson during his senior year at Ben Lippen School. “He introduced me to a worldview I did not have then,” McArver said, “not simply accepting God is good but that He is the type of God we can get to know.”
Brunson faced tragedy too. In January 1988 his 16-year-old sister Julie was killed in a car accident while driving with friends in West Palm Beach, Fla. Brunson’s mother Pam told me Julie’s death was perhaps the hardest thing the family faced, “but God always has His purposes.”
After marriage to Norine in 1989, Brunson earned his Master of Divinity degree at Erskine Seminary and worked with Operation Mobilization. In 1993 the couple set off for Turkey with the ARP’s World Witness, transferring their affiliation to the EPC’s World Outreach in 2010.
IZMIR IS A POPULAR DESTINATION on Turkey’s west coast, a city of 4 million hugging the Aegean Sea with cruise ship docks and white-sand beaches. In antiquity the city was known as Smyrna, its church highlighted for praise in Revelation as an impoverished church rich in otherworldly resources and ready to endure tribulation.
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested,” reads Revelation 2:10.
Tiny Resurrection Church sits on a narrow side street near the waterfront wedged among budget hotels, shops, and coffeehouses. The church grew out of the Brunsons’ immersion in Turkish culture and connecting with Turkish pastors. In the early years they learned the language and became familiar with the city, once nearly delivering one of their three (now grown) children in a taxi.
Resurrection Church, with about 40 people in regular attendance, became a fixture as its members handed out thousands of Bibles each month and hosted prayer meetings. In a country with a declining Christian presence of less than 1 percent of the population, Turkey’s Protestant and evangelical churches number only about 150. A handful meets in historic churches and the rest in houses or storefronts. Normally the Protestant congregations—made up of expats, converts from Orthodox or Catholic belief, or converts from Islam—face discrimination and persecution as a minority within a minority. Only in 2009 did they come together as the Association of Protestant Churches.
With the start of the conflict in Syria, the church reached out to war victims, and by 2014 Brunson and others were traveling to provide shelter and other aid to refugees near the Syrian border. “It was perfectly normal to help them,” one member of the church told Religion News Service.
Such activities were not illegal, but authorities later used them to construct a case against Brunson, claiming that he sympathized with terrorists and enemies of the state. “They had ministries full of blessings and harvests—all without conflict with authorities for more than 20 years,” said Richard White, senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Montreat.
Brunson’s detention, one could argue, grew out of the couple’s love for Turkey. Brunson and his wife had decided to purchase an apartment in Izmir in hopes of retiring there. One step in that long-range plan was to acquire permanent resident visas. They applied for the visas in 2016 shortly before leaving on home assignment—and before an abortive coup in July that ushered in emergency laws.
Authorities were jailing thousands under the new laws, but when Brunson received a summons in mid-October, he thought it was to complete processing for the visas. Instead, he and Norine were detained in a local police station. The Turkish police released Norine after 13 days and told Brunson he would be deported as a “threat to national security,” a common charge used to expel other American national workers that same month. But for two months the police held Brunson without charges or contact with outsiders. On Dec. 9, 2016, authorities summoned him to court, charged him with “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” and sent him to nearby Aliaga Sakran Prison.
As attention to the case grew in the United States, the charges expanded to include spying for the CIA. In March 2017 Brunson met with U.S. Embassy officials for the first time, and sent through them a letter to President Trump, asking him to “fight for me.”
Four months later—despite personal intervention by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump—Brunson was moved to a maximum security prison near Izmir and a cell he shared with about a dozen Muslim men. Neither he nor his lawyers—which now included Jay Sekulow, a personal lawyer for Trump and chief counsel at the American Center for Law & Justice—had seen evidence supporting the charges against him. That would come in a lengthy indictment not released until six weeks before his trial began.
While Washington and Ankara engaged in tête-à-tête diplomacy, Brunson said he faced his own battle. “I didn’t expect to go to prison, I had counted the cost in other ways. There always are threats involved in church planting. Someone attacked me once with a gun. We factored those things in but had never counted the cost of prison because it hadn’t happened to anyone in ministry in Turkey in a very long time.”
Brunson struggled to recall books by others who suffered for their Christian faith, wanting to remember how they counted it all joy. “I wasn’t filled with joy, I was actually really broken,” he said. He found the Bible “dry, it wasn’t feeding me.”
The first year of his imprisonment was full of fear and grief over the uncertainties. He suffered over separation from his family and from Christian fellowship. “If I’d been let out after the first year, I’d have been lying on the floor, curled in a fetal position with PTSD,” Brunson confessed. “The second year God started to rebuild me.”
The pastor credits Norine, who eventually was permitted regular visits, with helping him stay strong. He received also bolstering letters from his mother. Asked why he forgave those who lied about him, Brunson responded wryly, “My mother made me do it.”
Brunson said he was helped by the writing of Richard Wurmbrand, the Voice of the Martyrs founder who spent time in prison in Romania. Wurmbrand in solitary confinement read Matthew 5:10-12 every day—and he danced. Brunson began taking himself to a corner of his crowded cell every day to dance, reciting those same verses.
“‘Rejoice and be glad, rejoice and be glad.’ I was not rejoicing, but I did it as an act of obedience. It wasn’t pretty. People thought it was weird, but I would dance as Wurmbrand danced.”
When his first trial began this year on April 17, Brunson stood alone before a three-judge panel. After the charges against him were read, he delivered a six-hour rebuttal—in what observers later described as flawless Turkish.
“I reject all the accusations in this indictment,” he began. “I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My purpose here in Turkey is to tell people about Jesus and help disciple those who believe in Him. I have not been involved in any illegal activity.”
Two subsequent trial dates unfolded similarly, as witnesses testified against Brunson but produced no corroborating evidence of his crimes. Each time Brunson—separated from his Turkish lawyer in a gymnasium-sized courtroom, as well as his wife and other attendees—gave his own defense in Turkish. Each time the judges returned him to prison without pronouncing a verdict.
Besides Norine and a swelling crowd of international reporters, Turkey’s Protestant pastors attended each trial. Richard White, the North Carolina pastor, flew to Turkey, along with New York activist-pastor Bill Devlin. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., attended the first trial, as did U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. A delegation from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara also attended each proceeding, led by acting ambassador Philip Kosnett. A career diplomat (recently named U.S. ambassador to Kosovo), Kosnett once attended White’s Christ Community Church, though he and Brunson did not meet until Brunson was in prison.
The striking show of official U.S. support did not seem to sway judges or the Erdogan government; U.S. sanctions did. In July after Turkey again refused to release Brunson, Trump imposed sanctions blocking two top Turkish officials, the ministers of justice and interior, from U.S. transactions for their role in Brunson’s detention. It was the first time such penalties had been used on behalf of one detained American.
To this point, Erdogan successfully had used Brunson’s detention. Shuttering 177 media organizations following the attempted coup (and jailing more than 500 journalists), Erdogan could use state-controlled news outlets to build a steady campaign against Brunson. Front-page stories accused Brunson of launching terror attacks, serving as a CIA front for an American takeover, and masterminding the next coup. An American Protestant was a plausible bogeyman for Turkey’s woes, deflecting from Erdogan’s own corruption and economic mismanagement.
“We laugh at these ludicrous smear campaigns, but they are no laughing matter. They have consequences especially when it comes to religious minorities,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish politician and fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Further U.S. sanctions sent the Turkish lira, already spiraling, into free fall. Suddenly Erdogan faced a crisis at home over his handling of the Brunson case. On July 25, the court in Izmir ordered Brunson moved from prison to house arrest. The same day officials escorted him to his home, where he was reunited with Norine but was monitored and barred from leaving the country.
BY THE TIME Brunson’s Oct. 12 trial date arrived, reports had widely circulated that Ankara was ready to make a deal with Washington. The session at the Izmir prison courtroom began as others had, but quickly shifted. Several prosecution witnesses denied their previous testimony, and actually defended Brunson. “This was a judicial coup for Andrew,” said White, who was present. “The prosecution’s case crumbled on the spot.”
But when it was the prosecutor’s turn to speak, he reread the entire indictment against Brunson. In a final appeal, he asked that the judges lift the house arrest—and sentence Brunson to 10 years in prison.
The courtroom erupted, as journalists ran out to use their cell phones and the judges adjourned for 10 minutes. Brunson broke down in tears. He knew the rumors of a deal but also knew that other deals had not come to pass. In the courtroom, said White, “You could feel the life draining out of Andrew and Norine and all of us.”
Norine left the visitor’s gallery and went to Brunson. They embraced and prayed. When the judges returned, Brunson was on his knees praying, and no one knew what would happen next.
A judge asked Brunson to stand. How do you respond? he asked.
Brunson stood and said, “I am innocent of all these charges. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”
The judges recessed again. Brunson and his lawyer were unclear what would happen next. Presenting a defense at this point could jeopardize any diplomatic deal, but it wasn’t clear such a deal was in play.
There would be no defense. When the judges returned again, it was with a verdict: Brunson was found guilty on terrorism charges, sentenced to 3 years, 1 month, and 15 days in prison, and fined. Then the judges announced the travel ban against him was lifted, releasing him for time served.
Brunson and his wife returned to their home with Turkish police and U.S. diplomats, packed 13 bags, and within hours boarded a flight for Germany and then Washington, D.C. Nearly two years to the day Brunson had walked into government offices expecting to receive permanent resident visas, the Brunsons’ lives in Turkey were over.
Brunson calls his freedom “a Joseph-type situation”: “One minute I was kneeling in the middle of a Turkish courtroom, and within 24 hours I was praying in the Oval Office.”
After he had prayed with the president on Oct. 13 and returned to North Carolina, he joined worshippers at Christ Community Church who greeted him with long applause and a standing ovation Oct. 28. “I am a convicted terrorist now,” he reminded the assembly. Pastor Richard White responded for everyone, “We are not scared.”
The gathering took place in the chapel where Billy Graham and his wife Ruth were married in 1943, where other missionaries over the last century have been commissioned and sent off, welcomed home, and laid to rest. But it’s the next generation that’s most gripped White in the aftermath of Brunson’s case.
“I’ve been most impressed with the children. One after another I watched them come to Andrew and say, ‘I prayed for you.’ They have lived this with us, and to see the next generation come to understand that you can suffer for your faith, you might die, and it is worth it to be faithful has produced a sober awareness of the call in the Christian life. To learn to be faithful to Jesus even when it is difficult is an empowering thing.”
White described the long crisis for the church as “a walk of faith and the work of tears.” For Andrew and Norine Brunson, one walk is over and another has begun.
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