(Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump voiced his support on Tuesday for Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is on trial in Turkey on charges he was linked to a group accused of orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup, in a case that has compounded strains in U.S.-Turkish relations.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” Trump tweeted.
“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”
Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan. He faces up to 35 years in prison.
Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.
Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases roiling U.S.-Turkish relations. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.
Washington has called for Brunson’s release while Erdogan suggested last year his fate could be linked to that of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.
Brunson’s lawyer said the pastor, detained 18 months ago, was in custody because of his religious beliefs. Turkey is a majority Muslim country though constitutionally secular.
Turkey’s Izmir city prosecutor’s office said that sufficient evidence had been obtained to charge Brunson with aiding armed terrorist organisations and obtaining confidential government information for political and military espionage.
A copy of Brunson’s indictment seen by Reuters accuses him of working both with Gulen’s network and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group which has waged an insurgency in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said on Sunday he believed Brunson would ultimately be acquitted and there was no reason for his continued detention during trial.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Michael Perry & Shri Navaratnam