- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2018

A Turkish court ruled Friday that American Pastor Andrew Brunson is free to return to the U.S., according to several media reports.

Mr. Brunson was sentenced just over three years in prison, but he was released for time served.

The decision will mark a step toward improved relations between the U.S. and Turkey. The two NATO allies were caught in an economic battle as tensions worsened because of Mr. Brunson’s imprisonment.

Mr. Brunson was arrested by the Turkish government more than a year ago on charges related to terrorism and espionage. The government argued that the American pastor was involved in the failed 2016 military coup, which Mr. Brunson and the U.S. denied.

President Trump cheered the decision on Twitter.

“Pastor Brunson just released. Will be home soon!” he wrote.

Mr. Trump discussed Mr. Brunson’s plight on Twitter as reports started to surface.

“Working very hard on Pastor Brunson,” he posted. “My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon!”

Lauren Brunson, Mr. Brunson’s sister, told Fox News that it will be “incredible” to have him home.

“He has missed out on the last two years of life,” she said, “I know he’s eager to see his children again.”

Mr. Brunson’s release is being celebrated as a victory in the fight against religious persecution.

“We are joyful and so thankful for Pastor Brunson’s long-awaited freedom. We praise God for this wonderful turn of events and thank the many people who worked on his behalf, including high-ranking officials within the Trump administration and influential and committed attorneys,” Save The Persecuted Christians Director Dede Laugesen said in a statement.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins praised the Trump administration for fighting for religious freedom.

“America seeks the well-being of all peaceful, freedom-loving people, but this administration has made clear America will not sacrifice religious freedom and the well-being of Americans on the altar of globalism,” he said.

While U.S. lawmakers are cheering the return of a U.S. citizen, they continue to hold Turkey under scrutiny.

Republican Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, where Mr. Brunson lived, was thankful that “this terrible chapter” is over, though he remains concerned about religious persecution.

“All we can say now is thank God,” Mr. Hudson said in a statement, “However, I remain concerned with the troubling pattern of human rights abuses and ongoing religious persecution by Turkish authorities. Pastor Brunson was being held as a political hostage and his charges should have been dropped completely.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, demanded that Mr. Brunson be placed “on the next flight home” while continuing to criticize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“As we celebrate with his family, let’s not forget that Andrew is just one of many Americans, U.S. State Department employees, and Western nationals that Erdogan continues to hold hostage. There is still work to be done and President Erdogan has a long way to go before acting like the NATO ally we expect him to be.”

However, Sens. Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis, Jeanne Shaheen, and James Lankford — who led Congress’ work to secure the safe return of Americans imprisoned in Turkey — took a more positive tone. They expressed hope that Mr. Brunson’s release will mark a step to better U.S. -Turkey relationship.

“We encourage Turkish authorities to also release the others we have been advocating for who are wrongfully detained. In the end, the Government of Turkey did the right thing, a decision that will help strengthen the longstanding friendship between our two nations, as well as the NATO alliance,” they wrote.

Mr. Brunson is reportedly already on a plane en route to the U.S., NBC News reported.

Likewise, Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed hope that the end of “this ugly episode” would spark a warmer relationship with Turkey.

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