(AP) — An American pastor freed after nearly two years of detention in Turkey is expected to meet President Donald Trump at the White House on Saturday. The release of Andrew Brunson was a diplomatic triumph for Trump, who is counting on the support of evangelical Christians for Republican candidates in the November election.
Thousands of Trump’s supporters cheered Friday night when he informed them that Brunson was once again a free man.
“I’m really proud to report that earlier today we secured the release of pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Ohio. “He is now free from jail and he is in the air heading to Germany, where he’ll get offered a brief check and I think he’s going to be in great shape. And then he’s coming to Washington, D.C., tomorrow and we’ll say hello to him.”
Brunson, a North Carolina native, was due to arrive at Joint Base Andrews near Washington around noon.
“He went through a lot but he’s on his way back,” added Trump, who had pressured the government of Turkey, a U.S. ally, to release Brunson.
Trump also used the outcome to remind the audience of other detained Americans who regained their freedom under his leadership. They include three Americans released this year by North Korea before Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and an Egyptian-American charity worker freed by Egypt in 2017.
“We bring a lot of people back and that’s good,” Trump said.
A Turkish court on Friday convicted Brunson of having links to terrorism and sentenced him to just over three years in prison, but released the 50-year-old evangelical pastor because he had already spent nearly two years in detention. An earlier charge of espionage was dropped.
Hours later, Brunson was flown out of Turkey, his home for more than two decades. He was being taken to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for a medical check-up before the trip to Washington and Saturday’s meeting with Trump.
“I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” an emotional Brunson, who had maintained his innocence, told the court at Friday’s hearing. He tearfully hugged his wife, Norine Lyn.
Burson’s release could benefit Turkey by allowing the government to focus on an escalating diplomatic crisis over Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to The Washington Post who has been missing for more than a week and is feared dead after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, was killed in the consulate; Saudi officials deny it.
Turkey may also hope the U.S. will now lift tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports, a move that would inject confidence into an economy rattled by high inflation and foreign currency debt.
But Brunson’s release doesn’t resolve disagreements over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, as well as a plan by Turkey to buy Russian missiles. Turkey is also frustrated by the refusal of the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric accused by Turkey of engineering a 2016 coup attempt.
Brunson was accused of committing crimes on behalf of Gulen and Kurdish militants who have been fighting the Turkish state for decades. He faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges against him.
The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, and led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church, was imprisoned for nearly two years after being detained in October 2016. He was formally arrested that December and placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had resisted U.S. demands for Brunson’s release, insisting that the courts are independent. But he had suggested a possible swap involving Brunson and Gulen, who has denied organizing the coup attempt.