Concerns regarding the mid-term elections in November and overwhelming pressure from evangelicals are possible reasons behind the threats by United States President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence against Turkey on the issue of Pastor Andrew Brunson, according to experts.
Commenting on the recent exchange of words between Ankara and Washington, experts stressed that Trump and Pence made threats against Turkey via Twitter due to political and religious concerns.
In a surprising chain of events, first, the American vice president took to Twitter on Thursday, saying: "To President Erdoğan 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."
Following his tweet, Trump said, also on Twitter: "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. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!"
Yaşar Hacısalihoğlu, Rector of Yeni Yüzyıl University, said that the aforementioned threats should be considered as messages directed at the American public prior to the midterm elections in the country. "However, it should not be tied to only one factor. Reasons related to the issue may definitely be effective but there are different factors as to why Turkish-American relations have not reached the desired point," he argued.
On the other hand, Özcan Hıdır, an academic at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University and Rotterdam Islamic University, said that there is the religious side of the story. "It should perhaps be kept in mind, related to the Brunson incident, that Brunson is an evangelical missionary who has made significant services in Turkey," Hıdır said.
Hıdır suggested that "the Brunson phenomenon has a Theo-political background rather than being political, and that the U.S. administration, especially Pence, has set policies in line with the wishes of
evangelicals who vote in block for them."
The controversial threats via Twitter were met with frustration and harsh reaction in Ankara. "The U.S. government's use of threatening language is unacceptable," the foreign ministry said. "Turkey is a sovereign state with a deep-rooted democratic tradition and political order which upholds the supremacy of law," it added.
Furthermore, Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın warned Washington over its threatening language and said the U.S. administration will not "reach desired results by threatening Turkey over an issue which falls within the jurisdiction of our country's independent judiciary."
Vice President Fuat Oktay also commented on the matter, saying Turkey will not bow to "cheap threats" and the U.S. has to respect the independent Turkish judicial system.
In fact, Turkish-U.S. relations had already been very tense due to a variety of reasons. The long-awaited extradition of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) leader Fetullah Gülen, and the continuous American support to the PKK and its Syrian offshoots have been slammed by Turkish authorities at every occasion.
Hacısalihoğlu said that Turkey's multidimensional policy, in addition to the aforementioned problems, is disliked in Washington. "The U.S. has not stopped its relationship with the PKK-YPG. The U.S. has not fulfilled its promises in any way on the issue of FETÖ. Besides all this, Turkey emerged independent from the Cold War reflex of block dependence and has developed a relationship with everyone. It means a Turkey that cannot be controlled," he suggested.
Hıdır also believes that the political and religious concerns are not the only factors that played a role in the threats by Trump and Pence. "It is understood that Trump and Pence's statements on the Brunson case via Twitter are evidently based on theological-political factors from the evangelical [voters'] base. But it is also true that the Brunson incident is not just about Brunson," he said.
The Rotterdam Islamic University academic drew attention to the timing of the statements. "The most striking detail here is that Trump's statement was made just before the meeting of President Erdoğan with Russian and Chinese heads of state in South Africa where he is present for the BRICS summit," Hıdır argued, also pointing out that Turkey's multidimensional foreign policy was a factor.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also touched on the matter on Thursday. "Any kind of solidarity between us makes someone jealous," said Erdoğan prior to his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. There has been improvement in all fields including political, military, economic, culture and trade between the countries, he added.
Witnesses in the case claimed Brunson had harbored PKK supporters in his church and coordinated a U.S. arms shipments to a group affiliated with the PKK in Syria. The indictment against Brunson also says he had contact with Bekir Baz, a fugitive senior member of FETÖ who was in charge of the group's network in İzmir.
Turkish prosecutors say Brunson used his position as a pastor as a guise to commit crimes for terrorist groups and coordinated actions with them. The pastor faces 35 years in jail on charges of espionage, committing crimes on behalf of FETÖ and the PKK.
The United States has long been calling on Turkey to release Brunson. However, Turkish authorities responded to the calls, saying that Washington should respect the rule of law as the American side has maintained the same words regarding Gülen's extradition.
Trump and Pence's threats came just days after a court in Izmir ordered his imprisonment to be commuted to house arrest, citing Brunson's health problems.