A U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson, has denied terrorism and spying charges against in a Turkish court on Monday, describing the arraignment as “shameful and disgusting’’.
President Donald Trump has condemned the prosecution.
Brunson, who could face up to 35 years in jail, denied links to a network led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating a failed coup in Turkey in 2016, and the outlawed Kurdish PKK.
The pastor, from North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and has been jailed pending trial since 2016.
“I am helping Syrian refugees; they say that I am aiding the PKK.
“I am setting up a church, they say I got help from Gulen’s network,” he said, referring to the testimonies of anonymous witnesses in court.
One of the secret witnesses accused Brunson of trying to establish a Kurdish state, and providing coordinates to U.S. forces in the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish YPG militia, active in northern Syria.
“My service that I have spent my life on has now turned upside down.
“I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” Brunson told the court in the Aegean town of Aliaga, north of Izmir.
He has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.
His legal case is among several roiling U.S.-Turkish relations, including one in New York against a former executive of Turkish state lender, Halkbank.
The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.
Erdogan suggested in 2017 that Brunson’s fate could be linked to that of Gulen, whom Turkey wants extradited.
Gulen denied any association with the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Turks were arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with it.
Trump tweeted after Brunson’s first court appearance in April that the pastor was on trial for “no reason”.
“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully, he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” he said.
Outside the court on Monday, Sandra Jolley, Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called for the cleric’s release.
“Every day that Brunson spends here in prison is another day that the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world,” she said.
Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is expected to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Mike Pompeo, in Washington this week or next, said on Saturday that any decision was up to the court.
“They say that the government should release him, is it in my power? This is a decision the judiciary will make.” (Xinhua/NAN)