Trump demands Turkey 'immediately' release US pastor

President Donald Trump on Thursday demanded Turkey free a detained American pastor, warning the United States was ready to impose "large sanctions" against its NATO ally.

"He is suffering greatly," Trump said of 50-year-old pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in detention for almost two years. "This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!"

Brunson ran a protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir when he was detained in October 2016 on terrorism-related charges.

Brunson was moved from jail to house arrest on Wednesday, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move was "not enough."

The Trump administration -- which is broadly supported by powerful US evangelicals -- has made defending Christians abroad a tenet of its foreign policy.

"The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being," Trump said.

The escalating war of words between Washington and Ankara risks worsening already poor ties, which hold enormous military and economic importance for both countries.

The United States has long used bases in Turkey for operations across the Middle East, but relations have been strained by Washington's support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Brunson still faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted of carrying out activities on behalf of two groups Turkey deems terrorist organizations. One is led by the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says was behind a 2016 failed coup, while the other is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

His next hearing is set for October 12.

The pastor denies the charges and his defense team argues the case is built on questionable witness statements that should never have been brought to court.

Earlier Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence said "there is no credible evidence" against Brunson.

Last week a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would require the United States to reject international loans to Turkey until Brunson and other Americans are freed or the harassment against them ends.

"I find it difficult to see how this relationship moves forward... if the Turkish government continues to detain Pastor Brunson as well as locally employed staff, journalists, and civil servants," Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said at the time


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