Andrew Brunson on Why Congress Must Reauthorize Religious Freedom Agency for Prisoners of Faith

Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, center, waves as he leaves a prison outside Izmir, Turkey, on July 25, 2018, to go to house arrest. (DHA via AP)

The Rev. Andrew Brunson, an American who spent 23 years as a pastor in western Turkey before being falsely accused of and imprisoned for terrorism, ​is the author of “God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment and Perseverance​.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1

Little more than a year ago, I stood in a Turkish courtroom facing 35 years in prison — an effective life sentence. This day of reckoning had come after two years of detention on preposterous charges that I had aided a terrorist organization and had engaged in espionage through my ministry as the pastor of a small Christian church in Turkey.

Instead of life, I was given a sentence of time served and allowed to return home to the United States, my freedom granted thanks to the tireless efforts of President Donald Trump and his administration, as well as many members of Congress. But my release was aided in no small part by the dedication of a small government agency: the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, known as USCIRF.

Despite its impact on my life and thousands of others suffering from religious persecution around the globe, USCIRF  could be shuttered should Congress fail to reauthorize it by Friday (Dec. 20).

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government commission that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress. It is led by nine commissioners appointed by the White House and congressional leaders from both parties, who are in turn supported by a full-time staff of fewer than 20.

Over its 20-year existence, the commission has played a critical role in sounding the alarm and highlighting the world’s most severe cases of religious persecution — including that of Uighurs in western China, Rohingya in Burma, Baha’is in Iran and Christians in many countries.  It has also advocated passionately and effectively on behalf of individuals imprisoned for their faith, like me.

Turkish authorities detained my wife, Norine, and me in 2016 as potential “threats to national security” after we had spent 23 years living and serving primarily in the coastal city of Izmir in western Turkey.

My wife was released after 13 days, but I was moved to prison and placed with over 20 other inmates in a cell that was only built to hold eight. While prison authorities periodically permitted my wife and U.S. Embassy officials to visit me, I feared that I would be forgotten in that dark and despairing place.

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Source: Religion News Service