MANHATTAN (CN) – With the Turkish lira and markets tumbling, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatened to inflict further financial pain on Turkey’s struggling economy on Thursday if the country does not release a detained pastor.
Despite championing American pastor Andrew Brunson’s cause for months, the White House has been silent on Turkey’s ongoing imprisonment of a NASA physicist and two U.S. consulate workers who are accused of ties to Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
Vice President Pence raised the specter of a financial penalty for Turkey at a Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on Thursday, the same day the Turkish government transferred Brunson from an Istanbul prison to house arrest pending trial on terrorism charges.
Speaking of this transfer, Pence said: “This is a welcome first step, but it is not good enough.”
The Turkish government accuses Brunson – and multiple other U.S. citizens – of espionage and secretly helping Gulen, Turkey’s main suspect in a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.
Gulen’s denial of involvement in the aborted putsch has not stopped Erdogan’s government from clamping down on thousands of people associated with the preacher, however tenuous.
The White House and most human rights advocates call the allegations against Brunson baseless, and Pence said that the 50-year-old preacher must be brought back to his North Carolina home.
“To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: Release pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences,” Pence warned to applause at the religious conference.
Nowhere in the 4-minute video of the religious freedom conference does Pence refer to NASA scientist Serkan Golge or U.S. consulate workers Metin Topuz and Hamza Ulucay.
St. Lawrence University Professor Howard Eissenstat, a prominent Turkey watcher, found it “unseemly and it’s strategically unwise for the United States to be focusing only on pastor Brunson.”
“One, we don’t want to send the message that we only protect Christian citizens,” Eissenstat said in a Skype interview. “Secondly, there’s really good strategic reasons that we don’t want foreign governments to target our citizens, quite apart from the moral issues.”
Since the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan’s purge of suspected enemies and critics has reached tens of thousands in an international dragnet. Now leading the world in imprisoning journalists, Erdogan’s Turkey has also clamped down on police, judges, scientists, human rights activists, and other critics who he claims to be in league with official state enemies: primarily, Gulen’s religious movement and Kurdish militants.
“Even assuming we’re just focusing on American interests here, there is an American interest in not having U.S. citizens being detained as political hostages,” Eissenstat noted. “Our consular staff needs to trust us. We can’t maintain good consular staff if they don’t believe we have their back.”
Turkey has been accused before of “hostage diplomacy” in the imprisonment of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, who was freed from an Istanbul prison after Chancellor Angela Merkel signed an arms deal with Erdogan’s government.
Reuters has quoted Erdogan adopting a similarly transactional attitude with Brunson.
“’Give us the pastor back,’ they say,” Erdogan said last year, referring to U.S. demands about Brunson. “You have one pastor [Gulen] as well.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s recent passage of a bipartisan bill that will be appended to the annual military appropriations bill will ensure that other U.S. citizens will not be forgotten amid jockeying between the two religious leaders.
“It’s a very toothy bill,” Eissenstat noted. “It’s not symbolic.”
Introduced by the committee’s chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican with bipartisan support, the bill will push for international financial institutions to restrict assistance to Turkey.
“Assuming that bill goes forward, and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t, pastor Brunson could be released, and the sanctions would still go forward,” the professor noted.
Broad enough to protect all of the citizens missing in the White House’s statements, the bill would enforce sanctions until the Turkish government “is no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.”
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin called the threats from Washington “unacceptable.”
“The United States must reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interest and its alliance with Turkey,” Kalin said.
Another pending U.S. sanctions bill would restrict the sale of F-35 bombers to Turkey, its NATO ally, as Erdogan’s government considers a deal to buy S-400 missiles from Russia.