An American pastor held for two years in Turkey on terror-related charges arrived home in the United States on Saturday, where he was to meet with US President Donald Trump, who signaled an easing in the diplomatic crisis sparked by the case.
On Friday, a Turkish court in Aliaga convicted Brunson on charges of espionage and aiding terror groups. It sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail -- but released him based on time served and good behavior.
Trump thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his help on the case, which caused not only a serious diplomatic row between the NATO allies but led to a crash in the lira, exposing Turkey's economic fragility.
"Pastor Andrew Brunson, released by Turkey, will be with me in the Oval Office at 2:30 PM (this afternoon)," Trump tweeted.
"It will be wonderful to see and meet him. He is a great Christian who has been through such a tough experience. I would like to thank President @RT_Erdogan for his help!" Erdogan however said the court's decision was "taken independently." Both Trump and Erdogan have denied reports that the two sides reached a secret deal for the 50-year-old Brunson to be released in exchange for the US easing "economic pressure" on Ankara.
"There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!" Erdogan responded: "I hope that the United States and Turkey continue cooperation in a manner that befits two allies."
Brunson is an evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who lived in Turkey for nearly half his life, initially moving there in 1993 as part of a missionary program. He was first detained in October 2016, faced up to 35 years in jail. Prosecutors then demanded a sentence of up to 10 years. The pastor steadfastly insisted he was not guilty.
"I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey," he said in his final defense. When the verdict was read out, Brunson wept and hugged his wife Norine. After gathering his belongings, Brunson was driven to the airport in the Turkish city of Izmir, where he boarded a US military plane for Germany.
While the strain in US-Turkish relations eased with Brunson's release, problems remain.
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