Turkish President Recep Erdogan has responded to the ongoing calls by Christian groups and U.S. President Donald Trump that he release imprisoned U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson.
Referring to demands he has made in the past, Erdogan said Saturday that Brunson's fate is directly tied with the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania who is accused by the Turkish government of staging a failed military coup in the country in 2016.
"The U.S. is behind [Gulen]," Erdogan told Turkish television news channel NTV, according to Sputnik News on Sunday.
He added that "if you want Brunson, look at the steps you have taken in the past. Why don't you deport this man in accordance with the extradition treaty?"
The United States has so far refused to extradite Gulen, but has insisted that Turkey hand over Brunson, who is facing up to 35 years in prison if convicted of espionage and terrorism charges.
"Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason," Trump tweeted last week.
"They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!"
Brunson, who served at a small Protestant church in Izmir for 23 years before he was arrested in October 2016, has firmly denied he was involved in any illegal activities, insisting his only goal was ministering to people.
The pastor, who is from North Carolina, said at the start of his trial last week that he is ready to fight for his name to be cleared.
"I want the whole truth to be revealed. I reject all the accusations in the indictment. I haven't been involved in any illegal activity," Brunson told the court.
"I haven't done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years," he added.
As many as 66 U.S. Senators sent a letter to Erdogan last week demanding the immediate release of Brunson, accusing the Turkish government of holding him in prison without presenting any evidence of its accusations.
Sens. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said in a Thursday joint statement:
"Turkish President Erdogan has continued to violate the trust between our two nations by holding Pastor Brunson and other innocent Americans behind bars on fabricated charges."
They continued: "Turkish officials who participate in the detainment of any innocent American citizen should face international consequences, and the actions against Pastor Brunson, in particular, qualify as hostage-taking."