A spokesman for Turkey’s Protestant Christians declared yesterday that his country’s tiny Christian community has “emerged stronger” from the high-profile trauma of evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson’s highly contested imprisonment and trial. The US pastor’s two-year ordeal culminated in a Turkish court’s decision on 12 October for his release and departure to the United States.
“It feels stronger,” Soner Tufan, a board member of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey (APCT), told Al-Monitor. “For Christians, suffering is honourable.”
Brunson was among other Westerners, including journalists and rights activists, arrested in the widespread crackdown against suspected supporters of the failed July 2016 coup against the Turkish government. He eventually learned he was accused of spying and links to terrorist groups.
Referring to the APCT’s past decade of detailed reports on rights violations against Protestants, both local and expatriate, Tufan observed: “We see that oppressive practices against non-Turkish Protestants have increased fourfold in the past two years.
“Many of them have been deported on the grounds that they lacked the necessary documents to stay in Turkey, while some were kicked out for being a ‘threat to national security’. They all left upset, turned upside down … Others left without any pressure because they believed they are no longer safe in Turkey.”
Tufan said many expected Brunson’s high-profile case to weaken the Turkish Protestant Church, numbering about 7,000 citizens, mostly converts from Islam. “Curiously, that’s not the case,” he said. “The people’s attachment to their church grew stronger … to embrace more strongly their faith.”
“I lead services at the Kurtulus [Salvation] Church in Ankara every Sunday,” Tufan said. “I’ve been at this church for 30 years, and I can say that the number of people coming to the church increased thrice after what happened to Brunson. The place even began to become jam-packed, with people overflowing out the door.”
He added: “Not only Protestants, but also Orthodox and Catholics, people from different sects, grew closer to each other. They offered us solidarity.”
Although Brunson’s Izmir church was “initially shaken”, he said, “soon we witnessed big crowds and solidarity at the Resurrection Church as well”. Shortly after Brunson was released, the congregation purchased the building housing the church. “This has a symbolic importance,” he noted.
“The real surprise for me will be if the leaders of this country respect and appreciate me for my faith and recognise my rights.”
Tufan voiced disappointment that the Christian community saw no support from other segments of Turkish society, including Muslims, human rights and civic society groups and the left-wing opposition.
He noted that the charges against Brunson portraying him in the media as a conspirator had confused even Turkish Christians, some asking whether the pastor could be a spy. “Yet this shows how powerful the media is in creating perceptions, just as the trial showed how one could create a terrorist out of the most honest and purest and simplest man on earth,” he said.
The whole process “boiled down to how credible Turkey’s justice system is,” he said. “Although the court sentenced Brunson to three years in jail, it ruled to release him on time already served. Secret witnesses, meanwhile, retracted incriminating testimonies [at the final hearing], and the outcome was widely seen as Ankara’s acquiescence to US pressure in a ‘sham trial’.”
Does the Protestant community now remain anxious? According to Tufan, “Brunson’s ordeal was neither the first nor the last test for Christians in a land where religious prejudices remain strong.”
Politically, ethnic and religious groups outside the Turkish Sunni Muslim-majority “have always been under the scrutiny of the state”, he said. “In my view, Protestants are not seen as a big threat at present, but if something happens one day, they might think, ‘Let’s stamp them out’.
“The real surprise for me will be if the leaders of this country respect and appreciate me for my faith and recognise my rights,” added Tufan, who described the physical attacks he experienced years ago after making public his Christian faith.