One year after being freed from prison in Turkey, where he was unjustly detained for two years, Pastor Andrew Brunson has published a memoir about his experience and what he learned from it about suffering for Jesus. He told the Washington Examiner that, upon returning to the United States, he was surprised by what he sees as a growing hostility toward Christianity. The pastor is concerned that young American Christians will not be prepared for overt persecution when it comes to them.
“[Christian persecution] is actually very normal throughout history,” said Pastor Andrew Brunson. “The abnormality is to not have persecution, but we haven’t had that much in the West. And so people don’t expect it, and when you don’t expect it, then you are not prepared for it.”
What Happened to Pastor Andrew Brunson
Pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife, Norine, had ministered in Turkey for over 20 years when authorities arrested the couple in 2016. While Norine was released after 13 days, Brunson ended up staying in prison for two years. In an interview with Religion News Service (RNS), Brunson said the two at first thought they were going to be deported, but then Turkish authorities accused the pastor of being part of a terrorist group. Specifically, they claimed he had supported U.S-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes is behind a failed coup that happened in 2016. Erdoğan became involved in Brunson’s detainment early on, using him as a political pawn.
Said Bruson, “I had never met anyone who was part of [Gulen’s] movement. I never met what I would call a Gulenist that I was aware of in my life. And so when they accused me of being part of his movement, I mean, they knew it wasn’t true. (The Gulenists) are trying to win people to Islam and I’m trying to win people to follow Jesus, so the idea that we would be working together is just ridiculous.”
Various high-level U.S. officials became involved in the extended battle to secure Brunson’s release. In August 2018, President Trump doubled Turkish aluminum and steel tariffs because of Erdoğan’s continued refusal to release Brunson. In addition to the efforts of President Trump (which Brunson described as “unprecedented”), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. diplomat Phil Kosnett and the U.S. Senate helped a great deal. Said Brunson, “There were several letters that were sent from the Senate, but the last one to Erdoğan had 66 senators who signed. That level of bipartisanship on an issue is very unusual.” North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis even visited Brunson in prison and appeared with him at one of his trials.
Tillis posted a video to Facebook of Brunson delivering the opening prayer before the Senate this past Tuesday. Before he prayed, the pastor thanked the senators, saying, “I am standing here today because so many of you fought for me, and I’m deeply grateful. In a time of many divides, you were unified in fighting for my release. Thank you.”
Pastor Andrew Brunson was released to the U.S. on October 12th, 2018. One day later, he and his wife met with Trump at the Oval Office, where the couple prayed for wisdom and a “spirit of counsel” for the president.
Pastor Andrew Brunson’s Crisis of Faith
In an interview with The 700 Club, Brunson said that when he and Norine went to Turkey, they failed to fully “count the cost” of following Jesus. They knew planting churches in the country was risky, but they never expected to be imprisoned. The pastor also described his expectations of what prison would be like as “naive and unrealistic.” From reading biographies of Christians who had been imprisoned, he assumed he would have supernatural experiences of God’s comfort. Instead, he felt as though God had abandoned him. He told the Examiner, “I had expected that I was just going to have a really strong sense of God’s presence and a sense of grace, and I didn’t. And that really surprised me.” In response to God’s silence, he became angry at God and had a crisis of faith.
Brunson said, “I had periods where I was suicidal, where I lost all hope. I was in despair and had frequent panic attacks.” Even though he was surrounded by people, those men were Muslim, so he was isolated by his Christian faith. Also, out of his two years in prison, he spent 50 days in solitary confinement and was at one point facing a sentence of solitary confinement for the rest of his life.
“What made a huge difference for me,” said Brunson, “was the prayer of many people, knowing that they were praying for me. And I began to focus myself on God and fight for my faith. I became aware that I could do very little to fight for my freedom, but I thought, I’m losing my relationship with God in this terrible environment and I need to focus because if I lose this, then I’ve lost everything in my life.” In the end, he said, “I had to come to the point where I said, ‘Whatever my circumstances, whatever I see or don’t see, I need to declare God’s character.’” This was a deliberate act of the will, said Brunson: “I took steps with my will and forced myself, not with my emotions, but making a choice, I’m going to look to God. Then he began to rebuild me.”
Pastor Brunson also said the faithful support of his wife was crucial. After her release, she remained in Turkey, speaking truth to him and praying with him when she was able to visit—even as she herself struggled with doubt and fear. Brunson said, “The Lord really used her to keep me going.” She wholeheartedly embraced his request that she be like the persistent widow on his behalf. Said Brunson, “She was truly persistent. She tried in so many ways, with every diplomatic means that was possible, contacting political leaders. And so she was fully engaged and she did not give up and I’m so grateful for that.”
A Lesson for Young Christians in the U.S.
After coming out of his isolation, Brunson said he was struck by how “overtly hostile” American society has grown toward Christians: “There is a turning in our culture that used to have more respect for Christianity, and that is now becoming unpopular. And Christians are portrayed as being bigots, racist, and basically evil. And so, for someone to stand publicly as a Christian — especially a young person — they’re going to get a lot of pushback from their peers.” Social media increases this pressure, facilitating the speed and potency of criticism. And as Judeo-Christian rights and values disappear, “It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to stand for Jesus publicly, to stand unapologetically for him, to stand for the things that the Bible teaches is true.”
Consequently, Brunson believes it is only a matter of time before Christians in the U.S. will have to decide whether they are willing to endure persecution similar to that which he suffered. To prepare for that, he says believers should focus on developing a fear of and love for God now, which is how he survived his ordeal. The pastor hopes his story will encourage those who hear it to do exactly that and pursue Christ with their whole hearts: “I think the value of my story is that, hopefully, it will be an example…[and] encourage the next generation of Christians to stand for the Lord unapologetically.”