An American pastor who has been detained in Turkey since 2016 has gained increasing support from President Donald Trump and his administration in his fight to secure his release from custody. Andrew Brunson, a missionary who has been living in Turkey for several years after founding an evangelical Christian church there with his wife, Norine Brunson, was released from jail on house arrest on July 25. He is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing on his charges, which accuse him of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”
Brunson, his wife, family and supporters have denied the accusations against him and say that the charging documents contain no evidence of wrongdoing. He was taken into custody during a crackdown on journalists, academics and Christians, who are in the minority in Turkey, following an attempted coup that Turkish President Recep Erdogan has blamed on followers of cleric Fetullah Gulen, who is currently in the United States, according to CNN. Brunson has said he is now a follower of the Gulen Movement and has never met or associated with him.
On July 26, President Donald Trump sent a threatening tweet to Erdogan and the Turkish government, writing, “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. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
Vice President Mike Pence issued a similar statement while speaking at Ministerial on Religious Freedom at the State Department, according to CNN. Pence said, “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free. While he is out of jail he is still not free. And to President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the President of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.”
Brunson, 50, was born in South Carolina and lived with his wife, Norine, also 50, in North Carolina before they moved to Turkey, according to NPR.
Here’s what you need to know about Andrew Brunson’s wife, Norine Brunson:
1. Norine Brunson Was Also Arrested With Her Husband, but Was Released After 13 Days in Custody
Norine Brunson was arrested alongside her husband, Andrew Brunson, on October 7, 2016, and taken to a detention facility, according to a website set up to advocate for Andrew’s release. Norine Brunson was released after spending 13 days in custody and was told verbally that all charges against her were dropped. She has said her attorney told her that she could still be charged because nothing has been put into writing.
“They were summoned to the police department on Friday, October 7, for what they assumed would be questions about their recent residency application. Upon their arrival they were presented with a letter from Ankara labeling them a threat to national security and ordering their deportation. They were immediately detained, their phones were confiscated, and they were completely isolated from the outside world,” Voices of the Persecuted wrote in 2016. “The authorities denied repeated requests from their lawyers, the US State Department, and friends to see them or communicate with them in any way. They were explicitly forbidden from having a Bible, and were not allowed to receive books or any change of clothes. Andrew’s glasses and watch were taken away. They were told that their government had forgotten about them and that ‘hopefully’ they would be deported, suggesting that they might simply disappear and never be heard from again.”
According to Voices of Persecution, the couple waived their right to appeal their deportation, but have still not been deported. On December 8, 2016, after 63 days in custody without charges, Andrew Brunson was charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization” and sent to a prison. In May 2017, Turkish media reported that Brunson was being accused of being a “Kurdish sympathizer” and a “Gulenist.” Three new charges were added in August 2017, accusing Brunson of gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and trying to change constitutional order, all of which carry a potential life sentence. He was indicted in March 2018. On July 26, he was released from prison on house arrest.
“The ACLJ represents the family of Pastor Andrew – a U.S. citizen from Black Mountain, North Carolina – who has spent nearly 21 months imprisoned in Turkey because of his Christian faith. Pastor Andrew has been on trial for the crime of ‘Christianization,’ and the ACLJ has been working in this country and abroad to secure his freedom,” Jay Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a statement. “We have confirmed that the Turkish government has issued an order releasing Pastor Andrew from prison and allowing him to be returned to his home in Turkey. This is a critical first step that we believe will result in the freedom of Pastor Andrew so he can return to the United States and be reunited with his family. The President has played a critical role in securing the freedom of Pastor Andrew. We have worked closely with the President on this matter and are grateful for his efforts. We look forward to the ultimate release of Pastor Andrew.”
Sekulow added, “The ACLJ has been advocating for the protection of Christians and other religious minorities for years. The ACLJ also has been very active in working to bring an end to the persecution of Christians taking place in many parts of the world.”
2. She Has Been Supporting Him From Turkey & Also Working to Advocate for His Release, Including by Meeting the Secretary of State
Since her release from custody, Norine Brunson has been supporting her husband from Turkey, while also continuing to keep their church running. Norine Brunson started a Facebook page, Andrew & Norine Brunson, to keep supporters updated on the case. She has also been working with a bipartisan group of American lawmakers to help secure her husband’s release and return to the United States.
In March 2017, Norine Brunson met with then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to talk about her husband’s case, according to NBC News. ”Secretary of State Tillerson wanted to make sure he met with Mrs. Brunson to share the most recent information he had on Pastor Brunson’s case,” a State Department official told NBC News. “The Secretary committed to staying in touch with Mrs. Brunson regarding the case moving forward.”
Trump’s administration has increased its pressure on the Turkish government, with both Trump’s tweet and a speech by Vice President Mike Pence threatening sanctions if Brunson is not released from custody. Pence, while speaking at Ministerial on Religious Freedom at the State Department on July 25, said, “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free. While he is out of jail he is still not free. And to President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the President of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.”
3. Norine & Andrew Brunson Have 3 Children, Including a Daughter, Jacqueline, Who Testified Before the UN on Her Father’s Behalf
Norine and Andrew Brunson have three children, two sons and a daughter, Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, who has testified on her father’s behalf before the UN and European officials and has met with U.S. senators. The couple raised their three children in Turkey while running their church.
“In fact, my brothers were born there,” Jacqueline Brunson Furnari said during testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in November 2017. “We even went to Turkish grade school because my parents wanted us to learn the language and feel comfortable in the culture. To me, it was home. My family, school, and friends were in Turkey. I grew up in the mix of Turkish and American culture, and loved seeing the beauty in both. On holidays, we sometimes hung a Turkish flag from our balcony, as our neighbors did. We loved and respected the Turkish people, and my parents were dedicated to serving the Turkish people for as long as they could. My brothers and I used to joke that we would have to bring our future children to Turkey to see their grandparents.”
She said, “I didn’t even know when my parents were detained in October last year. I only found out several days after the fact because they took their phones and did not let them contact anyone. For what felt like weeks, I was in a state of panic. This hadn’t happened before. I couldn’t find out any information about what the charges were. There was no communication for two weeks, although we tried desperately to find out any information. Then, my mother was released. I called her the moment I got her message. I will never forget how shocked and brokenhearted she was because my father was still detained and no one knew why.”
4. Andrew & Norine Brunson Moved to Turkey From North Carolina to Plant a Evangelical Presbyterian Church 23 Years Ago
Norine and Andrew Brunson moved from North Carolina to Turkey in 1993 with their daughter to plant an Evangelical Presbyterian church there. Andrew Brunson grew up in a family of missionaries and graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School before becoming a teaching elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. According to the EPC, they moved to Turkey as part of World Witness, the board of foreign missions for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. In 2010, they planted Izmir Resurrection Church in the Aegean coastal town of Izmir, Turkey.
According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, a newspaper in Brunson’s home state of North Carolina, the church is in downtown Izmir “tucked away, not in a building of note,” with about 25 people attending on a typical Sunday. The couple helped turned the former British consulate building in Izmir into a prayer center and provided food and other help to Syrian refugees, friends told the newspaper.
“They were working with very marginalized refugees from the ravages of war in Syria,” Reverend Richard White, a senior pastor at Christ Community, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation, told the newspaper. “They care for people and they’re absolutely committed to the church there, to the Christian community and to the gospel of Jesus Christ, that others may know of him.”
5. Norine Brunson Is Also From a Missionary Family & Met Andrew Brunson When They Were Students at Wheaton College in Illinois
Like her husband, Norine Steiner Brunson also grew up in a missionary family and that led her and Andrew Brunson to decide to move to Turkey, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. Norine Brunson met Andrew while they were both students at Wheaton College in Illinois, according to the school’s website. She is a member of the class of 1989 and he is a member of the class of 1988.
The couple married in August 1987, according to an archive of the Asheville Citizen-Times.