Rules Are for Schmucks: Brunson Is Not Enough

Andrew Brunson appears to be a nice, quiet man caught up in events not of his own making. He’s been a pastor serving a tiny Protestant community in Izmir, Turkey, for over twenty years. He came to love the place so much that he even applied for Turkish citizenship. Then, in an attempt to pressure the US government to hand over a former Erdoğan ally-turned-critic (Fethullah Gülen), the Islamist thugs who rule Turkey through stolen elections grabbed Brunson and essentially held him as a hostage.

The key piece of evidence before the kangaroo court that tried him? A cellphone video Brunson’s daughter sent him of maqluba, a Turkish dish said to be a favorite of Gülen supporters. What more proof could anyone want that the evil Brunson is a bloodthirsty terrorist mastermind?

The good news is that after a year and a half of dithering, our government finally woke up and started to do its most fundamental job: protecting American citizens from gangsters like these. President Trump recently announced on the two Turkish cabinet officials most directly involved, leaving open the possibility of ratcheting up the pressure if this first step falls short.

All good, but here’s the problem: the sanctions are directed solely to the Brunson matter, and completely ignore the fate of another American in a predicament at least as serious.

Serkan Golge is an American citizen of Turkish descent. He is a thirty-eight-year- old scientist who works for NASA, researching the show-stopper question of how humans will deal with the perils of radiation once we are able to land on Mars. He has a wife and two young children, all American citizens.

Unlike Brunson, Golge wasn’t even in Turkey at the time of the 2016 coup. He made the profound mistake, though, of returning home from a family vacation via Turkey—where he was promptly arrested and charged with being an agent of the CIA. During his brutal interrogation Golge was repeatedly offered freedom if he would agree to spy against the United States on Turkey’s behalf. He refused.

A disgruntled relative testified against Golge, but then recanted his statement. The smoking gun  was a single US dollar bill unearthed in a search of his parent’s home. Aha! Golge was sentenced to seven and a half years in a nightmarish Turkish prison, spending at least part of the time in solitary confinement.

This travesty has not gone entirely unnoticed. Last winter State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described his conviction as being “without credible evidence.”  Senator James Lankford (R-OK) called the Golge case “an outrageous prosecution” based on “trumped up charges.” But now citizen Golge is a forgotten man.

President Trump says it is a “total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected US pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long.” Vice President Mike Pence says, “Brunson is an innocent man, there is no credible evidence against him.” Announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted that “the United States expects Turkey to release him [Brunson] immediately.” About Golge, they say nothing at all. “When I read the newspapers,” Golge’s wife laments, “I feel frustrated sometimes like they’re only trying to save Brunson but not us.”

Why? Could it possibly be that it’s because Golge chose the wrong profession? If he’d had the good sense to become a Christian God-peddler instead of a scientist advancing the frontiers of human understanding, then the politics of today would have all the official hearts publicly bleeding for him.

The evangelical community has mounted an enormous effort on Brunson’s behalf. They’re right—he should be freed, and we should squeeze Turkey harder and harder until it happens. But so should Serkan Golge. The political appeal of a victim shouldn’t affect our government’s efforts on behalf of American citizens.

Unfortunately, this administration’s bias for the pastor over the scientist is part of a larger pattern of official preference for Christians. This is no surprise—President Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network he intended to prioritize Christians in his aid policies shortly after he took office. He’s keeping that promise. In Iraq, for example, Vice President Pence has been directly involved in rechanneling US rebuilding money toward Christian communities that had been devastated by the Islamic State war. “We will not rest until we give our fellow Christians and persecuted communities across the Middle East the resources and support they need to recover, rebuild, and flourish in their ancient homeland once again,” he said. It’s true, the Christians left there are hurting badly—but so are lots of people. Instead of directing our efforts toward the greatest need, or (gasp!) toward the greatest bang for the buck, we’re targeting them to the people whose supernatural belief we officially prefer.

With regard to Iran, the Department of Homeland Security just announced that eighty-seven previously rejected applications for asylum from allegedly persecuted Christians would be considered again. Thousands of other asylum cases are backed up in the system, children are torn from their parents—but if you say you’re a persecuted Christian, your previously rejected application gets a second bite at the apple. Many of these people may be deserving, but being Christian shouldn’t get them special treatment.

The “Trump Administration Is Not-So-Subtly Christianizing Foreign Policy and Aid,” argues a recent article at Religion Dispatches. So much for “justice for all.”