North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, held on terrorism charges in Turkey for more than two years, left the country Friday and was on his way to the United States.
Brunson, who is from Black Mountain, is expected to visit the Oval Office on Saturday, President Donald Trump said Friday evening.
Brunson, 50, started the Izmir Resurrection Church in western Turkey, where he has lived much of his life. Brunson was arrested in October 2016, months after a failed coup attempt in the country. He faced charges of espionage and aiding terrorist groups.
The pastor told the court he is “an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey,” according to the Associated Press. Brunson was convicted by the Turkish court, but was sentenced to time served and allowed to leave the country.
“PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!” Trump tweeted earlier in the day.
The case drew the attention of North Carolina lawmakers, notably Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who visited Turkey to attend part of Brunson’s trial. Tillis spoke about Brunson’s case on the floor of the Senate numerous times, pledging not to stop until he was released.
“While the Brunson family has been caught in the middle of a diplomatic and political nightmare for the last two years, their unwavering optimism and faith kept them strong during this very difficult and stressful time,” Tillis said in a statement.
“Despite the anguish Pastor Brunson has had to endure locked away in prison with his fate uncertain, I was personally inspired when I watched him stand up in a Turkish courtroom during his trial – facing an effective lifetime sentence – and announce that he harbored no animosity or bitterness towards the individuals who falsely accused him. That is a testament to his incredible character and devotion to the principles of his faith, which he shared with the Turkish people for more than twenty years.”
Other state lawmakers in Washington called on the U.S. to impose sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for Brunson’s treatment. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had, in recent months, joined the call for Turkey to release Brunson.
The U.S. imposed sanctions on Turkey in August due to the dispute over Brunson. Trump said Friday there was “no deal” between the U.S. and Turkey to secure Brunson’s freedom.
Tillis, in an interview with Fox News, credited Trump with securing the release, calling him the “MVP in helping us get Pastor Brunson released.” Tillis also thanked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and fellow Sens. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, for their work.
Pence also tweeted about Brunson’s release.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson is coming home! Thanks to the strong leadership of @ Trump and the steadfast prayers of millions of Americans, this innocent man of faith will soon be home!” Pence wrote.
Brunson was released from prison and put under house arrest in July. He faced up to 35 years in prison.
His wife, who lived in Turkey with Brunson, was afraid to leave the country during his imprisonment because she worried she would not be allowed to return, Tillis told McClatchy in April. His children in the United States were afraid to visit because they were unsure if they’d be allowed to leave.
“All we can say now is thank God. I’m glad this terrible chapter is closed, and I applaud President Trump for taking strong action to help secure Pastor Brunson’s freedom. I pray Pastor Brunson can now return home and he and his family can move on with their lives,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-Concord, 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.”