US takes aim at Turkey over religious freedom

Jan Figel, the EU's special envoy for religious freedom, meets Patriarch Gregory III. [European Commission]

The United States took aim at Turkey on Wednesday (30 May), demanding that it release a US pastor facing trial, as the State Department published its annual report on religious freedom saying it was “under assault” across the world.

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, said the trial of US pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey had already caused a “deterioration” in US-Turkey relations.

“I was at one of his hearings that took place about a month ago. The factual charges are virtually non-existent. The claim against him is specious. He’d be off in a court here in five minutes if they had that,” said Brownback.

He added that the case was “a show trial”. Brunson was arrested over a year ago in Izmir, where he served as a pastor at a local church.

“I think there will be more items to follow for as far as specific things that will follow from the United States towards Turkey if they continue to hold him. He’s been in prison now 20 months without, I mean, on a completely false claim.

Launching the annual report on Tuesday, Brownback said that religious freedom was “under assault” across the world.

The US will host the first-ever ministerial meeting on advancing religious freedom in Washington DC on July 25 and 26.

Former EU Commissioner Jan Figel was appointed as the EU’s first Special Envoy on Freedom of religion and belief in 2016, and campaigners had hoped that the EU would carve out a leadership role in promoting religious freedom. Figel’s post, which falls under the remit of Development Commissioner Neven Mimica, was extended for a second year in 2017 but is due to expire today.

Figel reappointed as EU Special Envoy on religious freedom

The EU’s first ever Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU has been reappointed to another 12-month term.

 

No EU countries were included in the list of 28 countries of most concern to the US. However, in the briefing with Ambassador Brownback, reporters raised concerns about rising nationalism in central and Eastern Europe being connected to local religions such as Catholicism in Poland and Christian Orthodoxy in Romania.

In response, Brownback said that the US stance was to “strongly push the need for the protection of religious freedom for all faiths”.

“I’m a man of faith, and my faith is very important to me, but I don’t want the government to favour that faith,” he added.

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