WASHINGTON — Evangelical missionary Andrew Brunson said Thursday that the authoritarian crackdown and struggling economy in Turkey are causing more Muslim Turks to show interest in the Bible at a time in which the “storm clouds” of Christian persecution seem to be forming.
Brunson, a North Carolina native who spent two decades planting churches in Turkey before spending two years in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges, expressed deep concern about the future of Turkey’s small Protestant population during a hearing hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Capitol Hill.
“There is still a high degree of freedom for Christians relative to other Muslim countries in the region, but I am concerned that all the signs point to this changing soon,” said Brunson, who was released from prison last October after months of pressure from the U.S. government.
In the midst of a massive government crackdown in the wake of the 2016 failed coup attempt against the Erdogan government, Brunson explained that the regime has accelerated the expulsion and deportation of foreign Christian leaders.
According to Brunson, as many as 50 foreign Christian families have recently been deported from Turkey.
The 51-year-old read off a list of Protestant Christians in Turkey who have been deported after being accused of being a “threat to national security.” Most of them were leaders within their respective churches, he said.
He added that the Turkish church relies on foreign leadership because the Turkish government does not allow Christians to set up training programs in order to develop leaders in the country.
In the city in which he served for many years, Izmir, Bruson said that nearly half of all churches there have lost their senior leaders.
Citing a 2018 report from the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches, Brunson said there has also been “a significant increase in public hate speech designed to incite public hatred of Protestants.”
He said even more concerning was the “coupling together of churches and terror organizations in news reports without any evidence of substantiation.”
He blamed the Erdogan government for sewing a deep hatred of Christians in the hearts of Muslim Turks by spreading lies about him and Christians. He said government-fed propaganda has created a tense atmosphere for Christians in Turkey.
Even after his release, Brunson said that lies are still being spread about him in Turkey. He was accused of being a spy and even working on behalf of the CIA in an effort to overthrow the Turkish government.
“The foreign minister still refers to me in public as a spy and calls me ‘Agent Brunson,’” he said. “After the State Department report on religious freedom was published recently, the spokesman insisted that ‘Pastor Brunson was convicted because of his affiliation with terrorism not because of his faith.’ This is simply not true. I know that the Turkish government, especially at the highest levels, knew all along that I was innocent.”
He added that there were accusations in Turkish media that he was the one who gave orders for the New Zealand mosque shootings in March that took the lives of 50 people. Brunson said he was disgusted with such an accusation.
“The government is using the after-coup, the conditions to crackdown on a lot of people. So far, it hasn’t included Christians that much,” Brunson said in response to a question from USCIRF Vice Chair Gayle Manchin. “Like I said, there is a high degree of freedom compared to other places in the Middle East. However, the signs are negative and the storm clouds are gathering.”
“I think there are a number of people in the Turkish church, who as they see a lot of the foreign Christians being expelled from the country, [who] are very concerned about what is going to happen to them,” he added.
Brunson said that his indictment provides an example of how the Erdogan government views Christians.
“My crime was ‘Christianization,’” he stressed. “Acting as, I quote, ‘as an agent of unconventional and psychological warfare under the guise of an evangelical church pastor.’ All of our work was intended to fragment Turkey, they said.”
“Basically, the indictment was associating Christianization with terrorism and presented Christianity as a danger to Turkey’s unit,” he continued. “The senior judge said I was not on trial for missionary activity. But much of the supposed evidence against me as proof of supporting terrorism was our ministry activities.”
Brunson added that Erdogan once said while speaking in the context of his case that “To be a Turk is to be a Muslim.”
“This is the way that they see things often,” he said. “Obviously, Christians are not a threat to the Turkish government in any way. We expect Christians to be good citizens, to pay their taxes, to obey the law. They tend to be very generous and loving people. But if someone has that mentality that to be a Turk is to be a Muslim, then if one leaves Islam and becomes a Christian, then they will be seen as traitors. This has been one of the problems.”
Despite the increasing social tensions and deportation of foreign pastors, Brunson said he has heard from leaders inside Turkey that curious Muslims in Turkey are coming to Christian churches in search of spiritual answers at a greater rate than before.
Brunson said that there are about 6,000 Protestant converts from Islam in the nation of 83 million people.
“But we do see many more people,” he said. “This is interesting to me as someone who was starting churches in Turkey. Because of the crackdown and the difficult conditions in Turkey right now, more and more people are showing an interest in the Bible and in visiting a church and asking questions about Christianity.”
Brunson told The Christian Post after the hearing that he believes there is a “great spiritual harvest” coming to Turkey in which many people will turn to Jesus.
“I think that the conditions for people to turn will be difficult conditions,” he said. “We have expected there to be a great move of God but we have expected that it will happen in difficult circumstances. So I think that this government is actually creating a lot of circumstances for many people. Since they are doing this in the name of Islam that many Muslims are saying, ‘Is this is what we want?”
Those “difficult conditions” come in the form of the struggling Turkish economy and the decline in the exchange value of the Turkish lira.
“Many young people, especially, are starting to question. One of the things I taught in Turkey and they used against me in the trial was I said that ‘Turkey will be shaken,’” Brunson explained to CP. “I also think the same thing could happen in the States. God will shake the foundations of the things that we trust in order to get our attention.”
I think that is what is happening now. There are a lot of people who before wouldn’t have spiritual questions,” he continued. “But because of the difficulties they are experiencing and the things they have taken for granted or trusted and given security have been kind of removed, now they are beginning to think about things they wouldn’t have before.”
Many of those who are coming to churches to “seek,” he said, are wanting either a copy of the New Testament or just want to meet a Christian and learn about Jesus.
“We see people dropping in at churches,” he said. “There are many more people coming and asking for information than in the past.”