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Turkey's Erdogan Suggests Swap: Jailed U.S. Pastor For Turkish Cleric

Andrew Brunson, from North Carolina, is in a Turkish prison on terrorism charges that his family calls "totally false."
Courtesy of American Center for Law and Justice
Andrew Brunson, from North Carolina, is in a Turkish prison on terrorism charges that his family calls "totally false."

It's been nearly a year since Turkey detained American pastor Andrew Brunson — and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says if the U.S. wants Brunson freed, it should extradite an elderly Turkish cleric living in the U.S., whom Erdogan accuses of organizing last year's failed coup attempt.

"Erdogan has voiced frustration with American demands for more evidence pointing to Gulen's involvement in the coup effort," NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

Peter relays Erdogan's words in a speech at a police academy Thursday: "You have a pastor too," Erdogan said, adding, "You give us that one and we'll work with our judiciary and give back yours."

Brunson's case has been called a priority for President Trump's administration. Vice President Mike Pence has written to Brunson's family; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson's wife, Norine, in Ankara in March. Tillerson also discussed the case with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Brunson, 48, is an evangelical Presbyterian from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. He was arrested last October during the crackdown that followed a military faction's attempt to overthrow Erdogan in July. Since then, he's been accused of being part of an armed terrorist group; one month ago, he was charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government.

The cleric Turkey wants to get its hands on is Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar in his late 70s who lives in a compound in Saylorsburg, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains.

"Gulen, who is said to have millions of supporters in Turkey, has steadfastly denied any responsibility for the coup," NPR reported in July of 2017, "but Turkey is demanding his extradition from the U.S., where he has lived since the late 1990s."

Speaking to NPR earlier this year, Gulen denied being behind the coup attempt.

"To this day, I have stood against all coups," Gulen said. He added, "if I were to humor that idea, if any one among those soldiers had called me and told me of their plan, I would tell them, 'You are committing murder.' "

When asked about Turkey's attempt to extradite him, Gulen said, "I think the United States is mindful of its reputation for its democracy and rule of law, and if they are willing to risk that reputation by extraditing me based on the request and claims made by Turkey, I would never say no. I would go willingly."

He also spoke about what his final wish would be if he were to be condemned to die: "I would say the person who caused all this suffering and oppressed thousands of innocents, I want to spit in his face."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.