Pastor Brunson trial an attack on religious freedom - Pompeo

U.S. reporters fired a series of questions at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week on Andrew Brunson, the U.S. Pastor jailed in Turkey on allegations of terrorism links, as the issue continues to gather momentum across the nation.

Brunson’s lawyer had speculated that the evangelical pastor would be released at a hearing on Wednesday after the intervention in late June of two U.S. senators, who travelled to Turkey to discuss the case with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

However, the judge ruled to extend Brunson’s detention at least until his next hearing in October, prompting condemnation via Twitter from U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

The Brunson case was one of the hot topics during a round of media interviews held by Brunson on Thursday and Friday, indicating the intense public interest in the fate of the pastor, particularly among the large Christian conservative demographic in the United States.

Lauren Ashburn of the Catholic news network EWTN asked Pompeo what was preventing the release of the pastor, who she said was being held on “false charges of terrorism and espionage.”

“We’re working on it. It’s a priority,” responded Brunson, adding that the U.S. State Department is in conversation on a daily basis with Turkish government representatives on the issue.

Shannon Bream of Fox News and Tony Perkins of the conservative Christian non-profit FRC Radio fielded similar questions, with Bream describing the affair as a “sham trial” and Perkins saying it demonstrated the growing religious intolerance around the globe.

Pompeo tapped into this notion of the Brunson incident as an attack on religious freedom by the government of Turkey, a country where the vast majority of citizens are defined as Muslim.

“This is one example of why religious freedom matters, and so we’re going to have over 80 delegations here at the State Department in a handful of days, 40 of my counterparts, foreign ministers,” Pompeo told Bream, referring to a conference due to be held by the State Department next week.

“We believe that we can increase the capacity for human dignity and religious freedom by gathering the nations of the world and working together to get outcomes so we can prevent situations just like the one that Pastor Brunson is experiencing today,” he added.

Pompeo’s connection of Brunson’s trial to religious freedom – an area the Trump administration has been keen to focus on, and one alluded to by the New York Times as a diversion from the investigation into the U.S. president’s links to Russia – may well puzzle even the opposition in Turkey, where the trial is seen by most on political rather than religious terms.

Brunson has been charged with links to the Gülen Movement, which the Turkish government blames for the July 2016 coup attempt, and to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group which has sought Kurdish self-rule through armed struggle for decades.

A news outlet close to the Turkish government on Thursday alleged that the pastor was an important CIA asset who had set up a spying network from his church and would have been promoted to the head of the intelligence agency had the coup attempt been successful.

Pompeo has called for the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom convention which will be held in Washington in two weeks. Vice President Pence will speak at the conference, as will the United States’ ambassador for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback. Pompeo, during an interview said he expects some 80 representatives from foreign countries are slated to attend, including about 40 foreign ministers.