With a hurricane battering the coast and a bitter political battle raging everywhere else, Americans could use some good news. This morning, they got it. While the world watched, U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, after two long and harrowing years in Turkish prison, was boarding a plane home. Freed, at last.
For the Brunsons, whose excruciating journey began back in 2016 when Andrew was falsely accused of terrorism, it was an emotional verdict. At his trial this morning, he broke down in tears when the millions of prayers offered on his behalf had finally been answered. With his wife Norine in the courtroom, the North Carolina father wept when the decision was announced. "I am an innocent man," he had pleaded during the hours and hours of proceedings. "I love Jesus, I love Turkey."
FRC's Tony Perkins, who was in Izmir representing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) at the trial, had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Andrew and Norine the night before his fate was decided. Earlier in the week, at the White House ceremony for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, Tony had the chance to talk to President Trump about all the administration was doing to encourage Pastor Brunson's release. There isn't a day that goes by, the president told him, that his team wasn't working to bring the North Carolina pastor home. And he and Vice President Mike Pence told Pastor Andrew as much in a personal note that he asked Tony to deliver.
That, along with a list of the thousands of names of those of you who agreed to pray for the Brunsons, meant the world to Andrew and Norine. Despite the suffering and horrible conditions he endured, the Brunsons never wavered in their belief of God's faithfulness. Even staring down 35 more years in captivity -- the punishment for his bogus charges -- Pastor Andrew said simply, "I'll give thanks for the life I've lived."
Today, the world gives thanks for much more -- especially the fierce determination of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Sam Brownback, and senators like James Lankford (R-Okla.) who led the fight to turn up the heat on Turkey in Congress. Feeling the pain of U.S. sanctions -- and fearing more -- the Turkish court significantly reduced Pastor Brunson's sentence. For the first time, a defense witness was also allowed to testify, and others came forward to refute what had been said in previous trials. By the afternoon session Friday, the case against Pastor Brunson -- which U.S. officials had argued was a sham from the beginning -- was hanging by a thread.
In the end, the judges convicted Brunson, but lowered his sentence -- and lifted the exit ban that kept him in the country. He was ultimately released for good behavior and time served. "PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!" the president tweeted, ecstatic. For the entire Trump administration, the importance of today's victory can't be overstated -- not just for Pastor Brunson, but for international religious freedom at large. At a time when some of Turkey's faith groups continue to be persecuted for their faith, Pastor Brunson's ordeal should help open the door to more serious conversations about the importance of this fundamental liberty.
Meanwhile, Pastor Brunson's parents rejoice at the news that their son can turn the page on his life's darkest chapter. "We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world," she said. As for Pastor Brunson, who Tony was honored to accompany home at the request of the White House, he has nothing but gratitude for the millions of people who prayed, worked, and advocated for his freedom.
"We are grateful for the President's commitment and efforts in securing my release," he said. "My entire family thanks the President, the administration, and Congress for their unwavering support. This is the day our family has been praying for. I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States. It's been an extremely difficult time for our family and we want to express our appreciation to the millions of people around the world who have faithfully prayed for this day. I am thankful for the representation of the American Center for Law & Justice... as well as the many others who worked so hard to obtain my freedom. I look forward to returning home and being reunited with my family."
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.