As Turkey persecutes a Christian pastor, what price freedom?

This editorial appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on Easter morning, April 14, 2017.

On this Easter morning, I and hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide will be with our local church celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. My colleague, Andrew Brunson, however, will not.

Andrew and his wife, Norine, have peaceably ministered in Turkey as Presbyterian church planters since 1993. In October they were detained as a threat to national security. She was subsequently released, but Andrew remains imprisoned to this day.

Brunson, after 63 days of detention, was formally charged on Dec. 9 with being “a member of a terrorist organization.” To date, the supposed terrorist organization has not been identified, in part because the government’s file against Brunson is sealed. The most likely terrorist organization is the Gülen Movement, but it is possible Brunson will be accused of membership in a Kurdish terrorist group.

Nothing could be more absurd.

Brunson is the victim of a government crackdown following the failed coup d’etat last summer. Best estimates suggest more than 70,000 arrests have occurred, and 135,000 people have been purged from social-sector jobs.

Through our denomination’s determined efforts, Brunson’s arrest has garnered the attention of many in Washington D.C., even eliciting a meeting between Norine and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Andrew Brunson remains one more person on a growing list of persecuted Christians around the globe.

Open Doors, a global organization that tracks and advocates for persecuted Christians, reports more than 100 million were harassed, oppressed or killed for their faith in 2015. Turkey was elevated on the Open Doors watch list due to the increasing persecution from radical Islam, a dynamic political situation, and ethnic conflict. The International Society for Human Rights estimates an overwhelming 80 percent of all religious persecution occurs toward Christians. The ISIS-inspired suicide bombings at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt last Sunday, which left 49 dead and scores injured, are a painful reminder of this growing reality.

In spite of this rising oppression, what can Christians find in their own tradition that leads them to support religious freedom and work against religious persecution of any faith? As Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, who converted from Islam to Christianity, says, “Work for the religious freedom of those who would not grant Christians the same.”

Abraham Kuyper, a pastor, parliamentarian and prime minister in the Netherlands at the turn of the 20th century, argues that principled pluralism enables Christians to live peaceably with religious minorities. Principled pluralism is a posture whereby Christians stand by their convictions, and at the same time invite others into dialogue seeking the common good.

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ from the dead, a central tenet for Christianity. The resurrection freed Christ from the sting of death, and subsequently affords the Christian the same freedom from death. In addition, the resurrection frees Christians from the need to defend their tenets of faith to the point of violent oppression or harassment of another.

If the resurrection, and other tenets of the faith, are true for the Christian, freedom is the result, not defensiveness, much less offensive oppression of others. This is not an excuse for pride or haughtiness on the part of the Christ follower, but a relaxed humility from which love, hospitality and generosity shape one’s demeanor. Jesus’ very way of living, described in the Bible, before and after his resurrection, shows us best of all.

Modern societies are by no means innocent when it comes to the persecution of religious minorities. The Holocaust and 1995 genocide in Bosnia are horrific examples of religious persecution occurring in historic Christian societies. Ethnic hostilities, economic upheaval, patriotic fervor and more drove these events rather than doctrine. The indictment upon Christians today, and myself, is to search our rich tradition, along with the social sciences, for the reasons why principled pluralism does not flourish more readily preventing genocides of the future.

Ironically, Brunson’s church in Turkey is named the Protestant Resurrection Church. While Christians around the world celebrate an empty tomb this Easter, his congregation and wife, tragically, cannot celebrate an empty jail cell. As one persecuted for his own faith said, “The truth shall set you free.”

We pray the same for Andrew.


To learn more about Andrew Brunson’s plight, click here.

Listen to and share this song written by Andrew Brunson in prison, and set to music and sun by FPCO’s Genesis Worship Director, Wil Brown.

Case Thorp is the senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando and leader of The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal.

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