Is pastor Brunson’s detention a freedom of religion issue?
It was not reported widely by Turkish media for obvious reasons, but the annual 2017 report on international religious freedoms was released by the U.S. State Department a few days ago. Since the first release of the report in 1998, U.S. diplomats all over the world study the state of religious freedoms in 200 countries and highlight the areas of concern and abuse.
The religious freedoms dossier on Turkey has always been tricky. The Turkish state’s resistance to recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, bureaucratic difficulties in registering and operating places of worship for Christians, the polarizing role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the hardship for non-Muslims to obtain exemptions from mandatory religion classes, national identity cards containing a space for religious identification and leaving non-Sunni and non-Muslim individuals open to discrimination have been some of the leading problems through a Western lens.
While covering all above areas extensively, the 2017 report of the U.S. refers to the growing concerns of seculars in Turkey, ranging from the revision of the school curriculum in a systematic manner to increase Sunni Muslim content to the passing of a law which enables muftis to register and conduct marriages on behalf of the state.
As for the population of the Alevi community in Turkey, the report refers to the estimation provided by the Alevi foundations, which is indicated as “25 to 31 percent of the population.” The report draws attention to the Turkish government’s treatment of Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim sect and reluctance not to recognize Alevi houses of worship.
On the day of the release, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that protecting and promoting religious freedoms is a priority for the Donald Trump administration. Pompeo’s remarks were followed by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback who went to Turkey in April to attend pastor Andrew Brunson’s first trial in İzmir. Brownback referred to Turkey along with Myanmar and Bangladesh for the troubling freedom of religion cases. In order to understand where this puts Turkey, it might be helpful to remind that the State Department officials branded the treatment of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government as “ethnic cleansing.”
The reason for Brownback, former governor of Kansas and also a member of President Trump’s close circle, to drop Turkey’s name like that in the middle of that press briefing indeed had nothing to do with observations that I previously cited from the report. It was all about Brunson, whom Brownback referred to among people targeted for their faith. “I am grateful for the President, the Vice President and the Secretary’s leadership on this. We will all continue to raise this case every chance we get until he is released. There are way too many Andrew Brunsons held unfairly in prisons around the world” he said.
Brownback’s words were a clear indication that they believe Brunson has been in a Turkish prison for 18 months because of his Christian faith. However, the very report Brownback presented cites Protestant community sources who said they did not believe the Turkish government was specifically targeting foreign missionaries or those linked to Christian groups.
It is true that some foreign citizens, including several individuals with ties to Christian groups, faced detention, problems with residency permits, or denial of entry to the country under the state of emergency, which has been in effect since the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.
However, while the number of Western nationals who have been jailed in Turkey after the coup attempt is around several dozens, the number of Turkish citizens arrested by the Turkish government on alleged terror-related charges is around 50,000. Another 100,000 Turks were either dismissed or suspended from their government jobs on suspicion of their links with Fethullah Gülen and his movement, which the government continued to hold responsible for the attempted coup.
What made Pastor Brunson’s case special in this post-coup hysteria is obviously openly linking his case to the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the U.S. as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did. It indeed fueled suspicion that Brunson has been held as a pawn for a grand political bargain. Though, it does not prove that he was targeted for his faith.
Brunson’s case is a political issue, which also has been one of the most conspicuous examples of how the rule of law in Turkey falters. In order to pursue their evangelical agenda, the efforts of members of the Trump administration to brand Brunson case as freedom of religion issue cause injustice at several levels. And it makes one wonder if the world would have heard Brunson’s name this often if he was not a clergyman.