WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump has welcomed home an American pastor freed by Turkey and said the release would improve relations with Ankara, but he denied any connection to the dispute between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
With television cameras on hand to record the event, Mr Trump on Saturday invited Pastor Andrew Brunson to the Oval Office roughly an hour after he had landed back in the United States.
In an emotional moment, Pastor Brunson asked if he could pray for Mr Trump, then knelt next to him and asked God to give the President "supernatural wisdom".
Pastor Brunson's sudden release after two years in detention came as the Turkish government was seeking help from Mr Trump in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and apparent murder of Mr Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and critic of the royal family.
Mr Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 but never emerged, and Turkish officials said he was killed and dismembered with a bone saw.
Turkey is looking for the US to back it up in forcing Saudi Arabia to account for Mr Khashoggi's fate, but on Saturday, Mr Trump insisted that Pastor Brunson's release was not related. "The timing is a strict coincidence," Mr Trump told reporters. "It really is."
Pastor Brunson's case had become a cause celebre among religious conservatives, and Mr Trump eagerly embraced it. He credited the pressure he had put on Turkey for Pastor Brunson's release but said he had agreed to no deal.
"The only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one," he said. "We feel much differently about Turkey today than we did yesterday."
In an interview with 60 Minutes on CBS yesterday, Mr Trump said "there will be severe punishment" if Saudi Arabia is found to have ordered the killing of Mr Khashoggi, but neither in the interview nor in his comments to reporters on Saturday did he suggest what such punishment would look like. Instead, he extolled the virtues of an arms sales deal he cut with Saudi Arabia during a visit last year.
An evangelical pastor who ran the small Resurrection Church in Izmir, Mr Brunson, 50, and his wife, Norine, lived in Turkey for two dozen years.
He was arrested in October 2016, accused of spying and aiding terrorists and sentenced to three years, one month and 15 days in prison. He was released into house arrest in July and a Turkish judge last Friday reduced his sentence to time served, after which Mr Brunson was quickly flown out of the country.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia yesterday dismissed threats of sanctions over the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi and vowed to retaliate against such action, as US senators push for sanctions against the oil-rich kingdom if the murder allegations prove true. Turkey on Saturday accused Saudi Arabia of failing to cooperate with the probe.
Saudi stocks dived 7 per cent in early trading yesterday as the country comes under increasing international pressure over the missing journalist.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE