By CONOR FINNEGAN / ABC News
Pastor Andrew Brunson, the American who was detained in Turkey for two years before his release over the weekend, said he is “one of the most hated men” in the country where he had lived and worked for more than 20 years because of the Turkish government’s accusation that he spied and was linked to terrorism.
“At this point I’m one of the most hated men in Turkey, probably,” Brunson told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” Tuesday.
Brunson, 50, was a Christian evangelist in Turkey for more than 20 years before he was arrested in October 2016 and accused by the Turkish government of espionage and ties to terrorist groups. He, his lawyers and the U.S. deny those charges.
“Our purpose in going to Turkey was to tell people about Jesus Christ. We did that very openly, and we were never involved in anything political,” Brunson told Stephanopoulos. He said he and his wife were shocked by their inital arrest, which happened on their oldest son’s birthday.
Prior to his release over the weekend, Brunson’s case had created a deep rift in U.S.-Turkish relations, with the Trump administration heavily committed to securing his freedom and punishing its NATO ally with economic penalties for not doing so. An evangelical Christian pastor, he had also become a rallying cry for religious freedom advocates in the U.S.
The Turkish court sentenced him Friday to three years and one and a half months, but given his time served and that it was his first arrest, his house arrest and travel ban were lifted. He was flown out of the country that Friday on a U.S. military aircraft, stopping in Germany for a medical evacuation before landing in Washington on Saturday. There, he met with President Trump in an Oval Office welcome celebration, where he prayed with the president.
“My wife and I pray for every president — and we’ve just never had the chance to do it in the Oval Office,” he said with a laugh.
For Brunson, that emotional moment was also how he survived his time in prison: “The way I survived that was by just spending hours in prayer, just to keep my sanity.”
He was initially held in solitary confinement and later with 19 other prisoners in a cell meant for only eight, he said. Isolated by language, culture, and religion, he said he grew increasingly concerned about his physical safety, given the accusations against him.
Still, the entire experience may have yielded some good, he said.
“Even though this caused us a lot of hurt, I think that God is using this, was planning to use this to bring blessing to Turkey. Now, there are millions of people who pray for Turkey,” he said.
After their 23 years in the country, “working… in obscurity,” he said he and his family still love Turkey.