The trial of a North Carolina pastor facing up to 35 years in prison over terrorism charges began on Monday.
Andrew Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, has spent the last 23 years living in Turkey, where he and his wife raised their daughter and two sons.
Brunson was arrested in October 2016, shortly after a failed military coup. Turkish officials claimed recently that Brunson took part in the attempted overthrow of the Erdogan government by aiding terrorist groups or spying. At the time of the uprising Brunson was leading the Resurrection Church in the western city of Izmir and applying for permanent residency.
“I don’t accept any of the allegations or accusations,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Brunson as telling the court. “I did not engage in any illegal activity. I had no relations with anyone engaged in such activity.”
He added: “I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different.”
The agency said the pastor delivered his defense statement in Turkish.
The pastor’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told NBC News before the trial that he’s not been told who the witnesses are and that Brunson denies the charges.
Brunson, 50, appeared in court on Monday in the town of Aliaga for the first day of his trial. Also in court were Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and U.S. Senator Thom Tillis.
Brunson’s lawyer, Cem Halavurt, has called the charges “totally unfounded,” saying they are based on testimony from secret informants. He told the AFP news agency ahead of the hearing that his client was “both nervous, but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and a hope.”
Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told NBC News that relatives were happy the case was moving forward but concerned it could drag on further. “I’m not sure exactly why my dad was chosen. He’s a pawn in a political game between Turkey and the U.S.”
The case has strained relations between the U.S. and NATO ally Turkey.
Meanwhile, it appears the U.S. government hoped Brunson would be released, avoiding a trial. U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chairman Dr. Daniel Mark issued a statement saying he was disappointed that Turkey decided to prolong their prosecution and unjust imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson.
“Pastor Brunson is an innocent religious leader whose imprisonment for over 18 months on false allegations is an abomination. This latest development is yet another reason for the international community to condemn his imprisonment and for Congress and the administration to consider stronger steps against Turkey, including the imposition of targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice.”
According to CeCe Heil, executive senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, Brunson has lost 50 lbs during his detention and been denied private meetings with his lawyer.
Jacqueline Furnari told a U.S. commission investigating the crackdown in Turkey that she had postponed her wedding in her father’s absence.
“I’m still waiting for my dad to walk me down the aisle, and I’m still waiting for that father-daughter dance,” she said.
Brunson is facing up to 35 years behind bars if convicted.