U.S. pastor Brunson released by Turkish court, set to fly home

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife Norrine arrive at the airport in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. (Reuters photo)

(Reuters) – An American evangelical Christian pastor at the centre of a row between Ankara and Washington looked set to fly home on Friday after a Turkish court freed him, a move that may signal a step towards mending ties between the allies.

Pastor Andrew Brunson arrived at an airport in western Turkey’s Izmir province, a Reuters photographer said, amid expectations that the clergyman would soon board a plane to depart the country.

Brunson was released after the court sentenced him to three years and 1-1/2 months in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not serve any further jail time. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was jailed two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Brunson’s freedom, tweeted: “PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge’s ruling he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”

After the ruling, Brunson’s lawyer told reporters the pastor was likely to leave Turkey. The U.S. military planned to fly him home on a military aircraft, officials told Reuters.

The diplomatic stand-off over Brunson, who led a small congregation at the Izmir Resurrection Church, accelerated a sell-off in Turkey’s currency, worsening a financial crisis.

Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate.

Brunson’s wife, Norine, looked on from the visitors’ area.

Brunson’s mother told Reuters she and his father were elated at the news. “We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world,” she said by telephone from her home in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Trump’s ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.

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