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Everything you need to know about Trump and Erdogan's dangerous feud over a jailed American pastor

"This issue could really escalate into a more serious confrontation between NATO allies.”

by Tim Hume
Aug 2 2018, 12:39pm

Getty Images

The White House announced Wednesday it is slapping sanctions on two senior Turkish government ministers in a dispute over a jailed American pastor, ramping up tensions between the NATO allies that could lead to a serious confrontation.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. would sanction Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, accusing both of playing leading roles in the continued detention of Andrew Brunson.

Turkey, a key NATO ally, vowed to retaliate, auguring for a stormy road ahead for relations between Washington and Ankara.

"We will not give any credit to this type of threatening language," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in the Turkish capital Wednesday.

"It is not possible for us to accept that America gets up, especially with an evangelist, Zionist mentality, and uses this kind of threat-filled language.”

Who is the pastor at the center of the dispute?

The standoff centers around Brunson, a 50-year-old American citizen and Evangelical pastor, originally from North Carolina, who ministers to a small Presbyterian congregation in the Turkish city of Izmir. Brunson has lived in Turkey for 23 years, but has been detained for nearly two years on espionage and terror-related charges, for which he could potentially face the rest of his life in prison.

Turkey accuses Brunson of having links to Fethullah Gülen — a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whose network Ankara says was behind the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016. Brunson is also accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group that has been locked in an insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.

Brunson is just one of 20 American citizens who have been prosecuted under a massive Turkish government crackdown since the attempted coup.

The Trump administration considers the charges politically motivated, and his case has been raised with Ankara several times, including in a call between Trump and Erdogan. Trump has repeatedly spoken out in defence of Brunson, calling him an “innocent man of faith” who “should be released immediately” — threatening sanctions against Turkey if it failed to comply.

The U.S. had expected the pastor to be released on July 18. Instead, the following week, he was moved from jail to house arrest, over health concerns. The sanctions are a declaration that the Trump administration’s patience over the issue had run out, said Fadi Hakura, head of the Turkey project at London’s Chatham House think tank.

READ: Turkey’s Erdogan wants to make adultery illegal

“The Trump administration’s decision to impose sanctions against two senior ministers was really a shot across the bow — a warning shot that this issue could really escalate into a more serious confrontation between NATO allies,” he told VICE News.

Why is the pastor important to Turkey?

Analysts believe that Brunson’s real value to Ankara is as a bargaining chip — a pawn in the bid to push for Washington to hand over Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric whose extradition it has long sought for his alleged role in the coup. Turkey was also interested in the release of Hakan Atilla, an executive with Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank who is serving time in the U.S. for violating sanctions on Iran, said Hakura.

But he said Erdogan had made a “gross miscalculation” in seeking to use the pastor as a bargaining chip, a reflection of the Turkish president’s combative mindset.

“Erdogan overplayed his hand and this bargaining chip has now turned into a serious liability,” he said. “Turkey can ill afford to witness the deterioration of its relationship with Washington over a trivial issue such as this, precisely at the time the Turkish economy is on the ropes.”

He believed that in short term, Erdogan would hold firm in his refusal to comply with U.S. demands, milking his defiance for its political benefits at home, before eventually looking to mend the relationship.

Why is the issue significant to the Trump administration?

A mixture of the personal and the political is at play in the Trump administration’s approach to the standoff, it seems.

The plight of an evangelical Christian wrongly imprisoned in a Muslim country is a story that animates Trump’s evangelical base, said Hakura.

It’s also likely a case that fires up Trump and those around him. Vice President Mike Pence, himself an evangelical, has also been vocal about Brunson’s situation, floating the possibility of sanctions in a July 26 speech, after which Trump repeated the threat in a tweet.

Bringing home Americans held overseas has also been a hallmark of Trump’s foreign policy. His administration has overseen the return of Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi in April 2017; American Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband, and their three children born while they were held by their captors in Afghanistan in October 2017; and three U.S. hostages from North Korea in May. He’s likely looking to continue the successful run by securing Brunson’s release.

Cover image: Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson, escorted by Turkish plain clothes police officers as he arrives at his house on July 25, 2018 in Izmir. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)