- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2018

President Trump threatened Thursday to impose sanctions on Turkey if it did not release an American pastor detained for nearly two years on terrorism-related charges, in a case that has outraged Christians and raised tensions with the NATO ally.

It was the latest move in a deteriorating bilateral relationship, with Washington and Ankara at odds over Syria, Iran and Turkey’s plan to purchase a Russian missile-defense system the U.S. military officials fear could put sensitive military technology at risk.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clashed with both the Obama and Trump administrations over the refusal to extradite a Turkish cleric living in the U.S. that Mr. Erdogan claims orchestrated a failed 2016 coup against him.

Many in the U.S. government and on Capitol Hill say Andrew Brunson, the evangelical U.S. minister who had been jailed and is now under house arrest, was seized as a bargaining chip in the extradition fight.

“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

Turkish authorities moved Mr. Brunson, 50, a pastor from North Carolina, out of jail to serve house arrest due to health problems Wednesday. He had been in prison for 18 months, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Turkey’s move was “not enough.”

Vice President Mike Pence also called for Mr. Brunson’s full release.

Brunson is an innocent man, there is no credible evidence against him,” Mr. Pence said at a State Department conference on religious freedom in Washington. “While he is out of jail he is still not free.”

Ankara almost immediately shot back at Mr. Trump, warning it would “never tolerate threats.”

“No one dictates to Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted.

In recent days, the Erdogan government has rejected U.S. demands that it cut off oil imports from neighboring Iran and criticized moves in Congress to delay a promised sale of F-35 fighter jets over concerns Turkey was purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

A spokesman for Mr. Erdogan warned that the U.S. “cannot reach desired results by threatening Turkey.”

If convicted, Mr. Brunson could face up to 35 years in prison for “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups” and espionage. Turkish officials accuse him of being part of the network of Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric blamed for the 2016 coup and who now lives in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Brunson, who ran a Protestant church in the Aegean city if Izmir, has denied the charges. He is barred from leaving the country, with a hearing set for Oct. 12.

The Trump administration — which is broadly supported by evangelicals — has made defending Christians abroad a tenet of its foreign policy.

But the U.S. has major assets in Turkey, a front-line state that borders Iran, Iraq and Syria and is the largest Muslim-majority country in NATO.

The U.S. has long used bases in Turkey for operations across the Middle East, but relations have been strained by Washington’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Mr. Brunson is one of tens of thousands of people detained on similar charges during the state of emergency declared by Mr. Erdogan in the wake of the 2016 failed coup bid.

The measure ended on July 18. But the Turkish parliament on Wednesday passed a new “anti-terror” law that strengthens the authorities’ powers in detaining suspects and imposing public order.

Last week a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would require the U.S. to reject international loans to Turkey until Mr. Brunson and other Americans are freed or the harassment against them ends.

“I find it difficult to see how this relationship moves forward … if the Turkish government continues to detain Pastor Brunson as well as locally employed staff, journalists, and civil servants,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, at the time.

The Turkish lira sank after Mr. Trump’s threat of sanctions, compounding concerns about raising inflation and Mr. Erdogan’s stewardship of the economy.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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