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North Carolina Pastor Released From Turkey, Returns Home To White House Fanfare

Pastor Andrew Brunson

President Trump welcomed Andrew Brunson to the White House Saturday, celebrating the North Carolina pastor’s release from nearly two years of confinement in Turkey.

Trump, alongside Brunson and his family, addressed the press at the White House after the pastor arrived in the United States aboard a military jet.

“This has been a long journey,” Trump said, “But for Andrew, it’s been a very interesting day because, as you probably heard I said a little bit earlier, [he’s gone] from a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours. That’s not bad, actually.”

Brunson is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He and his family had been in Izmir in Western Turkey — where he ran a small evangelical church — for more than two decades.

The pastor was first arrested in October 2016 after a failed coup attempt. The Turkish government alleged that Brunson had aided terrorist groups and engaged in espionage. Brunson, along with American politicians, vehemently denied the allegations.

The pastor was found guilty Friday, and was sentenced to three years and one month. But the Turkish court sentenced Brunson to time served and freed him that same day.

Credit C-Span
Sen. Thom Tillis

North Carolina U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who visited Brunson in a Turkish prison earlier this year, said the pastor and his family were “caught in the middle of a diplomatic and political nightmare for the last two years.”

“Despite the anguish Pastor Brunson has had to endure locked away in prison with his fate uncertain,” Tillis wrote in a statement Saturday, “I was personally inspired when I watched him stand up in a Turkish courtroom during his trial – facing an effective lifetime sentence – and announce that he harbored no animosity or bitterness towards the individuals who falsely accused him.”

“That is a testament to his incredible character and devotion to the principles of his faith, which he shared with the Turkish people for more than 20 years,” Tillis said.

Brunson’s captivity strained relations between the United States and Turkey, contributing to U.S.-imposed economic sanctions on the country. The sanctions on steel and aluminum added to the economic hardships the country was already facing.

Tillis said Brunson's release will “undoubtedly help improve U.S.-Turkey relations moving forward.”

The president echoed the sentiment, thanking Turkish President Erdogan while addressing the press Saturday. Trump also congratulated Brunson for his bravery while in captivity.

“So I just want to congratulate you, because you have galvanized this country.” Trump told Brunson. “I mean, you just take a look this — there's so much interest.  And it's your faith, it's your strength, what you've gone through.”

Brunson, in turn, thanked the administration and politicians who he said were key in his release.

“You really fought for us, unusually so,” Brunson said. “From the time you took office, I know that you've been engaged, and Secretary of State Pompeo also was very engaged and fought for us.  And Vice President Pence, we're very grateful.”

He continued, “So, we're so grateful to so many people in the Congress who stood with us and who prayed for us, and who fought for us.”

Brunson and Trump also knelt in prayer together.

When asked to recount his time in confinement, Brunson said he and his family need time.

“I think we'll do that in the future.  We will probably be doing some interviews,” he said.
“Right now, we just want to especially — this is a time to thank the administration and people in government who supported us. And that's especially what we want to emphasize, is our gratefulness, to say we love this country.”

Before moving to Turkey, Brunson was a member of Christ Community Church in Montreat, North Carolina. According to Blue Ridge Public Radio's Matt Bush, Brunson's parents still attend the church. 

Christ Community's Rev. David Taylor told BPR that he doesn't know when Brunson will return to North Carolina but said when he does. "There will be Joy. There will be celebration. [The church] has been praying for this and seeing this resolution come...it's a time to party."