Trump hails freeing of pastor Andrew Brunson as step in Turkey-US relations

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Pastor Andrew Brunson (left) and President Trump participate in a prayer in the Oval Office. PHOTO: AFP
Brunson (centre) arriving at Adnan Menderes airport in Izmir, Turkey, ahead of his flight back to the US. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST) - President Donald Trump said on Saturday (Oct 13) that the release of US pastor Andrew Brunson after two years in Turkish custody was a "tremendous step" towards improved relations with Turkey, but he denied cutting a deal with Ankara.

"The only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one. We feel much differently about Turkey today than we did yesterday, and I think we have a chance of really becoming much closer to Turkey," Mr Trump told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Mr Brunson.

A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Mr Brunson, 50, who had been charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of a United States-based Muslim cleric, to more than three years in prison, but said he would not serve any further time because he had already been detained since October 2016.

The pastor's release could signal a thaw in relations between the two Nato allies, which worsened in August after a deal to free Mr Brunson fell apart and Mr Trump authorised a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey, helping drive the lira currency down against the dollar.

Mr Trump did not pledge to lift the sanctions, but said he welcomed an end to the "harsh relationship" the countries had over the past two months.

In front of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump's national security adviser John Bolton, US lawmakers and Mr Brunson's family, the pastor knelt beside Mr Trump on the floor of the Oval Office, placed a hand on his shoulder, and prayed for God to give him "supernatural wisdom".

Mr Trump also thanked President Tayyip Erdogan at Saturday's meeting for helping secure Mr Brunson's release, despite a curt Twitter post from the Turkish leader earlier on Saturday repeating that Mr Brunson's release was a court's decision to make, not his.

"Dear Mr President, as I always pointed out, the Turkish judiciary reached its decision independently," Mr Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account.

"I hope that the United States and Turkey will continue their cooperation as the allies that they are, and fight together against terrorist groups."

Mr Trump said Mr Brunson's release "wasn't easy" for Mr Erdogan.

In response to a question, Mr Trump said the administration is actively working on the status of other imprisoned Americans and government employees in Turkey. "We are working very hard," he said.

Senator Thom Tillis, who was at the White House on Saturday, previously criticised Turkey for continuing to detain "multiple other US citizens, as well as several Turkish staff of the US diplomatic mission, on scant evidence under the state of emergency".

Mr Brunson said that US State Department personnel in Turkey are working on behalf of other American prisoners currently in custody.

"They were involved very much in advocating for the other prisoners," he said.

Mr Brunson's release had been a top priority for evangelical Christians, and Mr Trump celebrated the pastor's return as a diplomatic coup for his administration.

The President hosted Mr Brunson before jetting off to Kentucky for an evening campaign rally.

Mr Brunson had been detained on espionage and terrorism-related charges. The pastor, a longtime resident of Turkey, was arrested along with thousands of other people after an unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt.

He was accused of having contacts with the alleged mastermind of the coup, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is a political foe of Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Mr Brunson was also indicted on charges of having contact with Kurdish separatists who have been designated as terrorists by Turkey and the US. Mr Brunson and the Trump administration have said the charges were bogus.

US officials and others close to the case had signalled that Mr Brunson might be released imminently after negotiations that included the lifting of US sanctions against Turkey. The agreement grew out of talks at last month's United Nations General Assembly meeting, attended by President Trump and President Erdogan.

The US and Turkey have extensive military and security ties but have had a fraught relationship marked by distrust in recent years. The diplomatic community hopes that a resolution of the Brunson case will mark a turning point in relations between the two governments.

Mr Brunson was taken to a US military hospital in Germany on Friday night, where he was checked by medics.

When Mr Brunson landed overnight in Germany, Mr Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, presented him an American flag. The pastor held it up to his face and kissed it.

At a campaign rally on Friday night in Lebanon, Ohio, Mr Trump hailed the release of Mr Brunson as a triumph, announcing to the roaring crowd that the pastor was "free from jail" and would be coming to Washington.

"We'll say hello to him," Mr Trump said.

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