Editor's Note: This interview contains a short discussion of suicide.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Andrew Brunson, an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for two years, inspired global prayers for his safe release. Now, he’s written a book, “God’s Hostage,” about the ordeal, which hardened American relations with NATO ally Turkey. Nick Schifrin talks to Pastor Brunson and New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who advocated for Brunson’s release, about faith, despair and diplomacy.
American evangelical Pastor Andrew Brunson spent two years imprisoned in Turkey on what the U.S. calls bogus charges.
His case created a crisis between the U.S. and its NATO ally. For Brunson, it caused a crisis of faith and a battle with depression. And a warning: There will be a brief mention of suicide in this segment that is upcoming.
Brunson has written a new book about his ordeal that is titled "God's Hostage."
Our Nick Schifrin sat down with him and with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who played a key role in his release and in Brunson's story.
Before Pastor Andrew Brunson became an unwilling media sensation and then flash point of U.S.-Turkish hostility, he lived a quiet life in Turkey for 25 years.
He built a small Christian congregation near the Aegean Sea, and with his wife, Norine, helped refugees from neighboring Syria. But in July 2016, elements of the Turkish military launched a failed coup. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on the military and all aspects of society.
He rallied supporters and arrested hundreds of thousands he accused of terrorism. And the Brunsons were also both arrested. In Turkey, they had spent every day together. But when Norine was released, Andrew was isolated and shuttled between prisons for two years.
Norine visited the prison every day and kept a vigil. And Turkish TV kept Brunson in the news, accusing him of being a CIA agent and supporting Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania who Turkey blamed for the coup attempt.
Turkey wanted to trade Gulen for Brunson.
Vice President Mike Pence:
Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences.
The Trump administration refused and imposed sanctions, and Congress maintained bipartisan pressure.
North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis:
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.:
And the charges that we have seen to me are specious. And I think that we have got to continue to support the family.
New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen pushed Erdogan for Brunson's release.
And on October the 12th, 2018, he was released, almost two years to the day after his arrest.
Last week, I sat down with Brunson and Shaheen together in Washington.
We were arrested to be deported.
And then somebody decided to hold us, and I think that was to intimidate other missionaries, so they would self-deport. At some point, I became, obviously, a use for leverage to try to gain concessions from the U.S.
There is a human story and the God story. What Erdogan was doing, I was his hostage, but when God had completed what he wanted to through my imprisonment, then he caused my release.
The first night, you describe.
And you write this: "Being locked up behind a big metal door in a foreign country, hearing the keys turn and the bolt slam for the first time is sobering. It's a sudden loss of control and plunge into uncertainty."
Can you describe what that felt like?
A total loss of control. It was very scary.
So, I was saying, God, you're the one keeping me here, when I have — I'm desperate to get out. I'm full of fear. And you're the one who could release me. And you're not doing it. And you're doing this to toughen me up.
And so I was having — it was taking me into a crisis of faith.
Do you think you lost your faith?
No, I didn't lose my faith. I was actually desperate to hold on to it. I wasn't wanting to walk away from it. But I was afraid that I was going insane at times.
Did you feel forsaken?
At times, I did. And I was very surprised.
Many of the biographies I have read of who I would call Christian heroes, my heroes, they show very strong people. And I expected that, when I was suffering, I would also have that strength. And, instead, I felt very broken and weak.
And you write very honestly about not only your crisis of faith, but your crisis of depression.
How deep was your despair at one point?
At one point, the Turkish government wanted to give me three life sentences in solitary confinement with no parole.
So I thought this. I could waste away here and spend years in this terrible isolation, and I'd much rather be in heaven than spend the rest of my life in a Turkish prison.
And that's what was leading me to think of suicide. I'm glad I didn't do it.
The combination of despair and anxiety is very dangerous. So, when I think I may not ever get out, I just wanted to escape the situation. It's not that I wanted to die. It's that I didn't want to live, I couldn't imagine living in these circumstances for a long period of time.
Senator Shaheen, let me turn to you.
How important was this case to you? And how did it become a bipartisan issue?
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.:
You know, I think the passage that you read in the beginning, that Andrew describes what it felt like to be locked in that cell, is an experience that no American citizen should ever have to deal with in a foreign country, especially someone who's trying to do good, who's lived there, whose family has lived there, who then is taken into custody for no reason.
I mean, those were totally trumped-up charges. There was no — there was no spying. No, it clearly was not due process.
The charges against me were just ridiculous and had no base.
I knew that there would — I could be released through the judicial process, but this was not being driven by the courts.
Meaning it was being driven by the top?
And I knew that there was one person in the end who would make the decision to release me or not.
The president of Turkey.
During the trial, when you had to defend yourself, you described how you found your voice. Can you describe that and what that trial was like?
I chose to forgive people, which I have to forgive them anyway, because that's what I'm required to do as a Christian.
Actually, Jesus said that we're supposed to rejoice when we're persecuted for his sake. So, I said, I'm blessed to actually be suffering for his sake.
And that's when I felt — I felt almost a holy defiance, I would say. We didn't know, when we went to the final court session, it ended up being the final court session. I didn't know that I would be released.
I packed two bags, one to go to come to the States and the other to return to prison. So, in the court session, they declared me guilty of terrorism. But then they said, we're suspending this for time served and while you appeal it, and your travel ban is lifted.
And that basically means, please leave as soon as you can. So it was such a roller coaster to go from being convicted of terror, thinking I'm going back to prison, and then we're rushing to the airport to get on an Air Force plane and leave Turkish airspace as soon as possible, in case they change their mind.
So, within 24 hours, I go from being convicted of terror to visiting the White House.
Overwhelming feeling of gratefulness to all the people who were involved in both Congress and the administration, and how wonderful to be back with my children and with my wife.
Do you also give President Trump some credit?
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Listen, this is the way government is supposed to work. People are supposed to work together, both houses of Congress, with the administration, to accomplish whatever the goal is in the interests of the American people.
We should be able to weigh in for every American who is falsely imprisoned around the world to try and make sure we can get them released.
And was the president's personal involvement important? Was the White House's involvement important?
So, I think so. Clearly, he has a relationship with President Erdogan.
And I think the more pressure we could put on Turkey, the better.
After everything you have been through, how do you feel about Turkey today?
We still love the Turks.
I don't really like the Turkish government. But I feel like they stole two years for me, but it's — God has redeemed it. And I believe that what I went through, what I suffered is actually going to bring blessing to Turkey.
So we have no regrets. My faith has deepened as I went through this. It's been — I would say it was severely tested. And because it was tested, and I came out of it, it's proven now. So, it's tested and proven.
Senator Shaheen, Andrew Brunson, thank you very much to you both.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Ali Rogin is a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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