- - Monday, August 6, 2018


It’s sad when promising friendships turn sour. It’s treacherous when carefully nurtured bonds among nations are put asunder. On paper, the United States and Turkey are NATO allies, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to trade relations with the West for ties to radical Islam. This has cast doubt on the future of the alliance. Turkey’s harsh treatment of an American pastor intensifies the crisis.

The Rev. Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old Evangelical Presbyterian pastor from Black Mountain, N.C., who has lived in the Turkish city of Izmir for 23 years, is charged with aiding terrorist groups in Turkey. He was recently freed from 18 months in a jail cell, and placed under house arrest while he awaits trial. If convicted, he faces 35 years in prison.

Pastor Brunson spent his years in Turkey as the pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation in a nation that, under Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic rule, has forsaken a modern, European cultural model for a radical and violent version of Islam. He was swept up in the scorched-earth prosecution of anyone under the slightest suspicion of supporting the attempted coup of 2016, led by military officers unhappy with Mr. Erdogan’s move away from the secular to a harsh Muslim model of governance.

The treatment of Pastor Brunson is suspiciously reminiscent of Iran’s past practice of arresting Americans and holding them as hostages. Treatment is often harsh. Pastor Brunson was first detained in a cell with 21 others; the cell was designed for eight prisoners. Members of his congregation tried to take food, water and clothing to him but were turned away. He was denied a lawyer and at first American consular representatives were not allowed to see him, in violation of international conventions.

Americans have been kidnapped by the government before. In 2009 three young American hikers were arrested on espionage charges, and two of them were freed only after two years’ imprisonment and a ransom of $500,000 was paid for each of them. The Erdogan regime looks for opportunities to deal in rough stuff. When the president visited Washington several years ago his security detail roughed up Americans on a street near the Turkish embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, who traveled to Turkey in 2016 to seek Pastor Brunson’s release, told Fox News “the Turkish government has all along said they’re going to hold this pastor and they want to get something for him. What they’re going to get for Pastor Brunson is sanctions.” In fact, the U.S. announced sanctions on two top Turkish officials — the ministers of justice and the interior, both of whom participated in the pastor’s arrest. Turkey, as expected, said the financial measures “will not go unanswered.”

Turkey is holding a hostage who by all accounts is an innocent man. Pastor Brunson hails from a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina. For centuries, the surrounding hillsides have been home to Baptists, Presbyterians and others of the deeply religious who hear the call of their faith — “the Great Commission” of Christ — to spread the Gospel to every land. Such missionaries are trained to avoid even the semblance of politics and to restrict their work to the concerns of the spirit.

Geopolitics is a full-contact sport and NATO members can expect to take diplomatic bumps and bruises. But Turkey’s behavior under President Erdogan raises questions of on whose side the nation, which is where East meets West, wants to be on. Turkey shorts its annual contribution to NATO, allocating only 1.5 percent of gross domestic product to the mutual defense. No breathtaking crime there — only five of 29 alliance nations pay the obligatory 2 percent. It’s the attacks on U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria, the cozying up to Iran and Russia, mocking Israel as a “terrorist state,” that describes the damage Mr. Erdogan has inflicted on his nation’s reliability as an ally.

Recognizing the deterioration of relations with Ankara, the U.S. Senate last week joined the House in including in the defense authorization bill language that temporarily bars the transfer of the first of 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the Turkish air force.

Turkey must shed its bipolar behavior, and quit doing things that suggest animosity toward the alliance. Returning Pastor Brunson to his family would be a welcome first step to demonstrating loyalty to NATO. Punishing innocent foreigners trying to do good is not worthy of a government that wants to be regarded as civilized.

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