Most Americans are aware that American pastor Andrew Brunson was freed from Turkey last week and is now home after a weekend meeting with President Trump, but many do not know the dramatic story behind the hours leading up to his freedom.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is also a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He visited with Brunson prior to Friday’s court proceedings and accompanied him back to the United States.
Perkins says there was no pre-arranged deal for Brunson’s release and Thursday night Brunson was deeply worried that the court would force him to spend the rest of his life in prison. Brunson’s spirits got a boost after Perkins presented him with letters from President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as well as a Family Research Council petition in which 16,000 Americans vowed to keep praying for him.
On Friday, Perkins was struck by the pathetic case the government had against Brunson, noting that the evidence used to hold Brunson in prison since October 2016 wouldn’t be strong enough to get a search warrant in the U.S. In addition, two “witnesses” recanted their testimony, which was nothing but hearsay anyway.
Prosecutors called for a 35-year prison sentence on charges of espionage and terrorism but the judges instead convicted Brunson on a lesser charge. The sentence was for three years and one-and-a-half months in prison. Brunson had already served two years and one month.
“Nobody knew exactly what (the verdict) meant because there was still this one year remaining. It was kind of like the jail cell door was left open and they just kind of turned away for a moment,” said Perkins.
“But they removed the house arrest and the travel ban. So it was at that point that the chargé that was there – the highest official representing the State Department – immediately realized we had to get him out of the country quickly, before the verdict might change. It still could be appealed.
“Arrangements were made to fly out immediately, as soon as a military aircraft could get there,” said Perkins.
“It was a very fluid process of trying to line up the transportation, trying to get everything arranged so he could get out of the country. It was very tenuous. It was almost like one of those things you see in the movies. We had no idea what was going to happen. It was changing every 15 minutes. We just knew we had to get him out of the country while the opportunity was there.
“It wasn’t until we were actually in the air, leaving Izmir, and had crossed out of Turkey’s airspace that I think he really began to realize that he was free,” said Perkins.
The plane stopped for a few hours in Germany, where Brunson famously kissed an American flag presented by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. Fewer than 24 hours later, Brunson was on worldwide television with President Trump in the Oval Office. While there, Brunson prayed for Trump and profusely thanked the administration for its “unusually” vigorous pursuit of his freedom.
But what was different about how the Trump administration approaches this case and others compared to previous administrations?
“[Trump] is putting America first in our foreign policy and this is what it looks like: we do not sacrifice the well-being of Americans or the human right of religious freedom on the altar of globalism anymore,” said Perkins.
Perkins also says Brunson’s steadfast faith throughout the past two years and trusting that God had a plan through his suffering is also a powerful testimony on a number of levels.
“I think he is an inspiration. He has no bitterness, no animosity toward the Turkish people. He still wants to pray for the Turkish people. In fact, he’s looking forward to someday being able to go back and continue ministering to the people. That’s what the gospel is about and he wants to share that gospel.
“We need to realize that religious freedom and the ability to share our faith is always at risk and we have to defend it, we have to uphold it, we have to protect it. But we also have to use it. We have to share the gospel with as many people as we can, both here in the United States and around the world,” said Perkins.
Listen to the full podcast to hear more of the dramatic exit from Turkey, the visit to the White House and more.