To Turkey, Brunson was a spy who attempted to overthrow the government during a 2016 coup attempt. But to US officials, he was an innocent Christian family man who was wrongfully detained.
The debate strained relations between the two nations and raised the possibility of significant sanctions and further threats. So who exactly is Brunson, and how did the pastor become a key figure in US-Turkey relations?
Brunson is from North Carolina
Brunson, 50, is a native of North Carolina and an evangelical Presbyterian pastor who worked at a church in Izmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast.
He had lived in Turkey for more than 23 years with his wife and three children, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization that advocated for his release.
But in October 2016, several months after a failed coup attempt in Turkey, he was arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
He was formally indicted in March on charges of espionage and having links to terrorist organizations. The charges included supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party as well as the Gulen Movement, which Turkey says orchestrated the coup attempt.
A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Brunson to three years and one month in prison, but chose to release him based on his time already served, as well as his manner during the proceedings, his lawyer said. Prosecutors were seeking a 10-year prison term.
After his release, Brunson quickly left his home in Izmir, Turkey, and headed to the airport. He landed at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, before heading to Washington, a senior US administration official said Friday night.
The ACLJ said Brunson was arrested primarily because of his Christian faith. US officials also said the accusations have no merit.
In July, Turkey released Brunson to house arrest and ordered him to wear an electronic monitoring device. State-run news agency Anadolu reported the Turkish court decision was due to his health problems.
At the time, several US officials praised the release to house arrest but maintained that he should be fully released.
“We have seen no credible evidence against Mr. Brunson, and call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in July.
The White House repeatedly pushed for his release
Even before his move to house arrest, the White House repeatedly pushed for Brunson’s release in conversations with Turkish officials. That push has since escalated to threats of economic sanctions.
Trump has tweeted about Brunson several times. The first time was in April, when Trump tweeted that Brunson was being “persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”
“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!”
On July 18, Trump said it was a “total disgrace” that Turkey won’t release Brunson, he wrote in a tweet that tagged Erdogan’s account.
“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long,” Trump said.
At the time, Trump tweeted that the US will impose “large sanctions” on Turkey for their detainment of Brunson, “a great Christian family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
Vice President Mike Pence similarly said that the US will impose “significant sanctions” on Turkey until Brunson is released.
“I know that his faith will sustain him, but it shouldn’t have to,” Pence said at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. “Pastor Andrew Brunson deserves to be free.”
Turkish officials sharply criticized the US threats of sanctions.
“No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted in July.
Hami Aksoy, the spokesperson of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the threats were “unacceptable.” and disregarded the US-Turkey alliance.
Turkey demanded a prisoner swap
Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Brunson “is not a hostage,” he has made comments raising the possibility of a prisoner swap for Brunson.
Erdogan in May questioned why the US was asking for Brunson’s release even as the US refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish government accuses of being behind the failed coup attempt.
“(Gulen’s) being harbored there. And he’s not a convict. He’s not even being detained,” Erdogan said. “And we demand his extradition, and he’s not being extradited to us. But there is a Pastor Brunson here, who is being currently prosecuted — and he’s allegedly associated with terrorist organizations. And you’re asking for him?”
Last fall, Erdogan raised Gulen’s extradition in a televised speech that suggested Gulen and Brunson could be swapped.
“‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. Well, you have a pastor as well. Give that one back to us, then we will give (Brunson) back to you,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s comments “created the perception that Brunson was illegally arrested as a bargaining chip,” according to Fadi Hakura, who manages the Turkey Project at Chatham House in London.
CNN’s Sarah El Sirgany and Gul Tuysuz contributed to this report.