Freed pastor Brunson leaves Turkey, due in US Saturday

A US pastor was flown
out of Turkey on Friday after a court freed him from two years
of detention, in a step that could improve US-Turkish ties
strained by disputes over Syria, Iran and Ankara’s planned
purchase of Russian military equipment.

Pastor Andrew Brunson was expected to land at Joint Base
Andrews near Washington at around noon EDT (1600 GMT) on
Saturday after a stop in Germany for a medical check-up.

Brunson was jailed two years ago and had been under house
arrest since July. He was accused of links to Kurdish militants
and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey‘s
government for a coup attempt in 2016.

The Turkish court sentenced Brunson to three years and 1-1/2
months in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not
serve any further jail time and freed him.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years,
denied the accusations and Washington had demanded his immediate
release.

President Donald Trump said Brunson would likely visit the
White House Oval Office on Saturday.

Asked if US sanctions imposed on Turkey to try to win
Brunson’s release might be lifted, Trump said no agreement was
made for the pastor’s freedom.

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“There was no deal made at all. There was no deal. But we’re
very happy to have him and have him in good shape.” Trump told
reporters in Cincinnati.

The diplomatic fight over Brunson had accelerated a recent
sell-off in Turkey‘s currency, worsening its financial crisis.

‘GREAT CHRISTIAN’

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, Brunson
wept as the court decision was announced, witnesses said. Before
the judge’s ruling, he had told the court: “I am an innocent
man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”

Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that
testimony against the pastor attributed to them was inaccurate.

Brunson’s mother told Reuters she and his father were elated
at the news. “We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers
of so many people around the world,” she said by telephone from
her home in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Trump has used the Brunson case to try to score points with
evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base,
ahead of the Nov. 6 congressional elections, which will
determine whether Republicans keep control of Congress.

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He has called Brunson, a native of North Carolina, a “great
Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top
emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for
Brunson.

“We thank God for answered prayers and commend the efforts
of @SecPompeo & @StateDept in supporting Pastor Brunson and his
family during this difficult time,” Pence said on Twitter.
“@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and
his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!”

US broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had
done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Brunson’s release.

Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, told
Reuters that active engagement by Trump and US Secretary of
State Mike Pompeo contributed to Brunson’s release.

“A lot of factors played into this,” Tillis said, adding the
United States was trying to “get back to a point of a positive
relationship” with Turkey.

NATO ALLIES

Relations between the two NATO allies have been under
serious strain over US support for Kurdish fighters in
northern Syria, Turkey‘s plans to buy a Russian missile defence
system, and the US jailing of an executive at a Turkish state
bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.

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The release of Brunson could help ease tensions, but
political analysts say many unresolved problems remain.

“This is a necessary but far from sufficient step to reverse
what has been a deepening rift between the United States and
Turkey
, two NATO allies,” said Jon Alterman, director of the
Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington.

Attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-US
national and former NASA scientist in jail in Turkey on
terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the US
consulate who have also been detained.

Washington wants all of them released.

“We hope that the Turkish government will quickly release
our other detained US citizens and @StateDept locally employed
staff,” Pompeo said on Twitter.

Ankara has demanded that the United States extradite Gulen
to Turkey. The cleric, who was lived in self-imposed exile in
the United States since 1999, denies any role in the attempted
coup.

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