The White House is announcing that the Treasury Department is imposing sanctions on two Turkish officials over a detained American pastor who is being tried on espionage and terror-related charges.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders says the Trump administration would sanction Turkey’s minister of justice and minister of interior over the holding of 50-year-old Andrew Craig Brunson.
The administration says Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu both played leading roles in the organisations responsible for Brunson’s arrest and detention.
Andrew Brunson, who led a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir, is at the centre of one of the most bitter diplomatic spats between the NATO allies in years that risks escalating further.
Brunson was last week put under house arrest after nearly two years in jail. But the crisis has since escalated rather than being defused, with US officials furious he has not been allowed to leave Turkey.
Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government won’t back down and may “go its own way” if the US imposes sanctions.
“We will not give any credit to this type of threatening language,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
“It is not possible for us to accept that America gets up, especially with an evangelist, Zionist mentality, and uses this kind of threat-filled language,” Erdogan added.
Erdogan’s comments come after senior figures from Turkey’s religious minorities issued a joint statement on Wednesday denying that there was pressure against their followers.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Turkey Armenian Deputy Patriarch Archbishop Aram Atesyan and Turkey’s Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva signed the declaration among other minority leaders, Hurriyet daily reported.
“We practise our faiths and worship according to our traditions freely,” it said.
Vice President Mike Pence said last week that Brunson was “a victim of religious persecution” but Erdogan insisted that Turkey did not have the “slightest problem against religious minorities”.
Both Pence and Brunson are evangelical Christians. Brunson’s Izmir church is affiliated to the Orlando-based Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted on charges of acting on behalf of two groups deemed by Turkey to be terrorists – the movement led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says was behind the 2016 coup bid and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
He is also accused of espionage for political or military purposes. Brunson rejects all the claims against him while US officials insist he is innocent of all the charges.
A court on Tuesday rejected a petition filed by Brunson’s lawyer asking for his client to be freed. The next hearing in his case is on October 12.