ALIAGA (TURKEY): An American pastor has denied accusations that he aided terror groups or spied against Turkey, speaking at the beginning of his trial in a case that has strained ties between Turkey and the United States.
Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina, faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of "committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member" and "espionage.
" Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the coup attempt.
He served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Brunson denies any wrongdoing.
"I don't accept any of the allegations or accusations," the state-run Anadolu Agency yesterday quoted Brunson as telling the court in the town of Aliaga, some 60 kilometres north of the Aegean coastal city of Izmir.
"I did not engage in any illegal activity. I had no relations with anyone engaged in such activity," Brunson said.
"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 also told the court he would never work against Turkey.
"On the contrary, I love Turkey.I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years," the Cumhuriyet newspaper quoted Brunson as saying.Cumhuriyet said the pastor wept in court during an afternoon session, saying being alone in a cell had affected his psychological state.
North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis and Sam Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms, observed the trial, which the court later adjourned until May 7.
"The Administration is deeply concerned about this case," Brownback told reporters outside the courthouse.
"We completely believe (that) Andrew Brunson is innocent.We are hopeful (that) the judicial system will find that." He added: "You'll continue to see very high-level US government interest in this until he is released."
In the United States, Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma warned of possible congressional action against Turkey, if Brunson is not released.
"It is unconscionable that Turkey, a NATO ally, has unjustly held an American pastor in prison since October 2016," Lankford said.
Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison sentence for crimes Brunson is charged with committing in the name of Gulen's group and the PKK.
They want the pastor to serve another 20 years, if he also is found guilty of obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes using his religious work as cover.