For 735 days, the world neither saw nor heard from Andrew Brunson, even as he became a central figure in global politics. The American evangelical Christian pastor, who had operated a church in the Turkish city of Izmir for 23 years, was taken into custody by Turkish officials along with his wife, Norine, in October 2016, and initially told they were to be deported. Norine was released soon after, but Andrew was thrown in prison, accused, based on farcically thin evidence, of terrorism, of supporting the attempted overthrow of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, and of backing both Kurdish separatism and the movement associated with Erdogan’s enemy, the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.
Brunson was one of thousands arrested in a post-coup crackdown, but his case in particular became a cause for Christians around the world and a priority for the Trump administration. (Brunson’s U.S. lawyer, Jay Sekulow, is also on Trump’s legal team.) Erdogan, meanwhile, sought to use the Brunson case as leverage against the U.S., particularly to attain his long-sought goal of getting Gülen extradited back to Turkey.
Though a Turkish court found him guilty, Brunson was eventually released last October after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the country, following the collapse of an earlier deal to secure his release. (Trump referred obliquely to this incident this week, threatening to once again “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it did anything “off-limits” in its military offensive in Syria.) In a new book, God’s Hostage, Brunson tells the story of his ordeal, focusing in sometimes painful detail on the depression and crisis of faith he suffered while imprisoned. This week, I spoke with Brunson, who has returned to the United States and told me he is currently “waiting for my next assignment.” We talked about how his experience in prison changed him, and about Trump’s recent decision to permit Erdogan’s offensive in Syria. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joshua Keating: Looking back on it now, with some hindsight, why do you think you were arrested?
Andrew Brunson: So, there are two sides to that. There’s what I would call God’s story, and then there’s the human story. If I looked at the human side first, I think that there was a perfect storm, in a way, after the coup attempt. I was American, a Christian, a missionary, and there’s a state of emergency, so the Erdogan government was able to do things they normally wouldn’t have done as easily. And they took advantage of that.
I think that when I was arrested, it truly was to deport us, and then somebody decided to keep us. I think the intention there was to intimidate other missionaries and have them self-deport, and also to intimidate the local church. At some point then at a very high level—I would say the president of Turkey himself—they made a decision in December of 2016 to keep me and see what they could get for me. And then I was used as leverage to try to gain concessions from the U.S.
Then, I’d say the God side, this evil got flipped and turned around. I became a magnet for prayer for Turkey, and millions of Christians around the world prayed for me. And through me, they prayed for Turkey. People who couldn’t find Turkey on a map before suddenly started praying for them. I think God is going to bring great blessings to Turkey through this.
You lived in Turkey for 23 years before this happened. You speak the language, know the country well. What do you think about what’s been happening in the last few days?
You’ll know from reading the book that when the civil war started in Syria, and many refugees poured into Turkey, that we began to minister among them. And many of them happened to be Kurds. We weren’t seeking out the Kurds—they just were the ones in front of us. We were involved in humanitarian aid and helping people who were in desperate situations. Also, we’re always about declaring Jesus. That is what I’m all about, is telling people about Jesus. A number of them did become Christians. A number of those went back into Syria, returned to [Kurdish] areas and are living there now, and are the kernel, the seed of small churches. And so we are very concerned obviously about what the Turkish government is doing.
Another thing: I had a dream in prison, in December of 2016. I want to explain this. When I say a dream, I have dreams every night, but there are just a few I’ve had in my life that are not normal dreams. They are dreams that I believe are from God. Someone who doesn’t believe in God will think it’s just a delusion. But there are hundreds of millions of Christians around the world who believe that God still speaks to people.
I had a dream about Turkey and Russia and Iran beginning to move together in what was a very dark alliance. I think what is significant about that is to underline the timing. Turkey and Iran historically have been enemies. In 2016, Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet. Russia had imposed sanctions on Turkey that had hurt their economy, and they were not getting along. And they were all on opposite sides in the Syrian war. So, this was very counterintuitive to believe that they were going to be coming together in a very dark alliance. But three or four days after I had this dream, a Turkish policeman assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, and I thought, “Well, this is going to drive Putin and Erdogan apart.” But it had the opposite effect and brought them together.
And it was terrifying to me because I thought, if this happens, then the U.S. will lose its leverage in Turkey, and then I’m stuck here in a very anti-Christian regime. And so, I did talk at some point to a high-level State Department official and told my dream. The person dismissed it and said, “That will never happen because Turkey’s interests lie in moving with the West.” I said, “Well that may be true, but this is what God showed me.” And it began to happen. And it has progressed over the last three years, since that dream, to where there’s a high degree of cooperation, and Turkey has moved incrementally away from its Western alliances.
And so to me that frames the context of what is happening in Syria now with Turkey.
Well, let me ask then: The Trump administration obviously played a major role in pressuring Turkey and securing your release. But how do you feel now, looking at the president backing Turkey in its offensive into Syria and inviting Erdogan to the White House, given what you suffered at the hands of his government?
Yeah, so that takes me into an area that I want to stay out of. I certainly have views on all of these things, but I have always tried to stay away from political areas because my main goal is to declare Jesus, and then that would compromise my message.
What I do think comes out in the book is that I’m grateful that Erdogan let me go, but he also held me for two years. And so I can thank him: “Thank you President Erdogan for releasing me.” But what do I say about two years of deliberately holding me when he knew I was innocent?
As for Trump and Erdogan, and all of those relationships, what I want to underline here is the dream God gave me showed the direction that Erdogan is going. And it’s away from the West and it’s toward other relationships. And so, that’s about what I want to say. I hope that decisions will be taken according to that.
I’m curious about the title of the book, which I think refers to the conversation you had with your mother where she called you “God’s prisoner.” For those of us less knowledgeable about religion, I wonder if you could explain a little bit what you mean by that?
Let me demystify it a bit. I was actually Erdogan’s hostage. You could have titled it Erdogan’s Hostage. But in a bigger sense, I came to think of my time in prison as an assignment from God. Not that he sent me to prison. I don’t believe he did. I think this was an attack on us, and it was Erdogan ultimately who kept me there. But God had a purpose in this. And so, in a sense, I was God’s hostage. And when he had finished what he wanted to accomplish, then he affected my release.
You’ve said that you drew inspiration when you were imprisoned from reading the stories of other people of faith who have been in similar situations. What do you hope people gain from you telling your story?
I did draw inspiration from people who had been imprisoned for their faith, but I also saw that I just didn’t measure up. I was very broken in my imprisonment, and I made a pledge to God during that time, I said, “If I ever am released and have an opportunity to speak about this, then I’m going to be very open about my weakness and brokenness.” And I think that is actually an encouragement to many people, because what they’re expecting is a story of victory that’s very triumphalist, without the very real human suffering involved, the pain, the grief, the struggle.
You talk in the book about the isolation you felt being the only Christian in prison, held in cells with groups of Muslim prisoners. Being in prison with these men, did it change the way you look at Islam or Muslim culture at all?
No. I had worked with Muslims for 23 years already. What I got in prison was a postgrad course in the practice of Islam. I saw it very close up. Now, my approach, I don’t use the word conversion. People think, “Oh, what has Brunson been doing, cramming Christianity down the throat of Muslims?” That has never been our approach.
I never talk about the Quran, I don’t talk about the Prophet Mohammed, I don’t talk about Islam, and I don’t argue about these things. What we’ve done very simply is tell people about who Jesus is. It’s a positive presentation, not a negative one, in the sense that we’re not attacking anything. We are presenting what the Bible teaches about Jesus to people who are interested in asking questions, and that’s it.
And so there hasn’t been a conflict between us and Muslims at all. A major character in the book is my cellmate Nejat. I love him and had a great deal of respect for him, even though our views of God are obviously somewhat different.
Do you know what’s happened to Nejat?
He is still in prison. It makes me angry because most of the people I was in prison with were fathers, so their children are growing up without their fathers, and none of them was involved in the coup attempt. I mean, hundreds of thousands of people’s lives have just been destroyed through this.
If the political situation were to change in Turkey, would you ever want to go back there?
We have a love for Turkey in our hearts, and when we say this, it isn’t just a love for the culture and the food and things like that. It’s that we believe some of the love God has for Turkey, he placed in our hearts. It’s not so much an emotional thing as a commitment to see blessing come to them. And so yes, we would want to go back to Turkey again.
The regime would have to change. They also set me up as a major hate figure. If I went back now, they’d put me in prison again, or else somebody would kill me probably within a week, because they accused me of so many things. But we would love to go back someday.
We continue to love the Turks in spite of what we went through. And we also forgive those who harmed us.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.