He felt lost in those first early moments of freedom, unable to quite grasp what was happening as he was being rushed to the presidential airplane to be flown back to the United States. “I did not feel free yet; my nightmare ended only when we left the Turkish airspace,” says Andrew Brunson, the American Evangelical Church pastor at the center of one of the toughest diplomatic disputes to test relations between Washington and Ankara, which resulted in the imposition of harsh financial sanctions.
Asked about the unprecedented level of political engagement mobilized for his release in October 2018 – a matter of honor for former American president Donald Trump and a valuable tool of pressure for his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – Branson says: “I’m just a simple man of faith.”
“Please call me Andrew,” he adds as he proceeds to describe how his ordeals began.
“In October 2016, we received a call from the local police station. We thought that it had something to do with our long-term residence permit. But when we got there, we were told that we were going to be detained in order to be deported. I started crying. I did not want to be deported. We stayed 12 days in a detention center, along with ISIS fighters. On the 13th day, Norine [his wife] was released. I was transferred to another facility in the middle of the night. I was crying again. This time I wanted to be deported. I stayed there for 50 days, in complete isolation. No contact with either a lawyer or the consular authorities. Alone, me and my darkness,” he says.
He recalls the sound of the heavy metal door closing behind him on the first night. He would hear it again and again over the next two years of his life. The memory still keeps him awake at night.
Turkish authorities accused Brunson of terrorism, espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, and for ties to US-based exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). His isolation drove him to despair. He became haunted by suicidal thoughts, crushed by an internal struggle with his own faith.
In those early days, 17 US senators wrote a letter to Erdogan requesting the pastor’s release. “I know he received that letter. Normally when you have so many senators, some of them extremely influential, asking for something like that, you would expect him to let me go. His response was to turn my administrative arrest into a criminal one and to put me into the prison system, in a regular jail. I stayed for eight months in the same cell with another 23 prisoners. We never went out. I was the only Christian among devout Muslims.” His very existence, he says, “was tested and broken again and again.”
“I felt like a hostage of God,” says Brunson, hesitantly, as if struggling to believe how deeply his faith was shaken. “In the first year, I collapsed. In the second, I began to rebuild myself and my relationship with God. I had no choice. I learned to live in the dark.”
When the Brunson case started to become critical for Trump in 2017, the Turkish media went on the offensive, launching an unprecedented campaign to tarnish his reputation. “I became the most hated figure in Turkey. I became the priest terrorist. The priest spy. They said all kinds of things about me. That I like beheading Turks. That I had been trained in the CIA because I had once fought with a gunman who had attacked our church. The truth was nowhere to be found,” he says.
For his own protection, he was transferred to another high-security prison. Brunson was extremely valuable to Erdogan, who was trying to negotiate his exchange with Gulen. The American pastor spent 13 months in the new prison.
The last two were extremely intense and stressful because of the uncertainty surrounding his case. The two presidents eventually reached an agreement for his release but the agreement broke down and he was put on house arrest pending trial.
“There were protests outside my house every day. I had guards and vehicles to protect me from the public’s rage,” he says.
In an unprecedented move, Trump imposed sanctions and a few days later he raised tariffs on Turkish products, a move that eventually led to Brunson’s release. He describes the rollercoaster of the final 24 hours, “from the dungeon to the Oval Office.”
“On the day of the trial, no one could predict the outcome. Not even the USA. On the way to the court, I packed two bags: one for prison, one for freedom,” he says. “I now know that during those last moments, Erdogan was under pressure to put the ‘dark priest’ – that is how he is still calling me – back in prison. There were protests in the streets, people burning US dollars. They hated me. But at the same time, the sanctions were unbearable. I was, as the Economist wrote at the time, the most expensive prisoner ever.”
Erdogan had to weigh all the factors.
“From the first moments of the trial, it was clear that the decision would be a political one. It was the decision of a single person. He was not present but somehow he was. I was not allowed to put on any defense and soon after the trial began I was convicted of supporting terrorism. I immediately thought that if they sent me back to prison after all this pressure and the economic sanctions, I would never get out. Then they suddenly told me that they would release me until I appeal the sentence. And after that, the travel ban was removed. For the first time in two years, it was like seeing the light. From that moment on, there was this rush to get me out of the country as fast as possible. We all knew that one wrong statement, one wrong tweet, was enough to send me into solitary confinement forever,” he recalls.
“Trump ordered that a presidential airplane would take off from Germany. Within a few hours, we were gone. I went straight to the White House. I will always be grateful to President Trump because he saved me, to some degree he shaped US policy to save me. Now you understand, I think, why I seemed so lost in the first moments of my freedom,” says Brunson.
Almost three years have passed since then. For the pastor, life has thrown it all at him: It brought him to his knees from post-traumatic stress, gave him grandchildren and moments of genuine happiness from the new freedom; but it also gave him moments of paralyzing fear. “I will not feel completely safe again,” he says. “Do not forget that Erdogan, after his last meeting with Trump, said that it was a mistake to set me free. I hope he does not decide to correct this mistake. I have to be careful.”
He hesitates when the discussion shifts to Turkey today. “I want to stay out of all this, keep my opinion to myself,” he says, and an awkward silence follows. “How?” I ask him. “I recently heard you talking about the spirit of the Ottoman Empire that is rising in Turkey and you said that it is a spirit of conquest and domination.” “Yes, but that is not insulting for Erdogan,” he says. “For me and you that you are Greek, it is. Not for Erdogan.”
I ask him if he believes the upcoming elections will bring change. “Erdogan will continue to dominate Turkey after the elections,” he replies with absolute certainty, effectively ending the discussion.