Andrew Brunson lived in Turkey for a quarter-century starting churches and helping refugees. His new book, “God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance,” tells the story of his last two years in the country, spending months in a cramped cell built for eight with as many as 21 others.
Detained in October 2016 by the Erdogan government, which said he sympathized with the dissident Gulen movement, Brunson became the focus of a campaign by U.S. politicians and Christian leaders for his release. After being freed a year ago, Brunson has made public appearances at the State Department’s religious freedom summit in July and most recently over the weekend at the Values Voter Summit, where he and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins prayed for President Donald Trump.
In an interview with Religion News Service before Turkish forces began their recent assault on Kurds in Syria, Brunson, 51, spoke of his appreciation for his freedom, his depths of despair during his detainment and his continuing concern for the people of Turkey.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A year after your release, how are you feeling and what, if any, ministry work are you involved in now?
It is wonderful to be free. I’m enjoying life. I’ve enjoyed time with my family, with my children, with my wife. So yes, a year later I’m doing great. As for what I’m doing, we still want to be involved in the Muslim world and telling people about Jesus. I don’t think that we will be directly starting churches anymore. But we would like to help people who are basically the next generation of church leaders in that area.
When you were first detained you thought you were going to be deported. What changed?
Very early on, when they were processing our arrest, the person processing us received a phone call and, accordingly, ticked the box on our processing form that said that we were part of a terror group or supporting a terror group. And so that changed everything. It showed their intention to not simply deport us but to take it to a very different level. I think that the reason they kept me — they released Norine (Brunson’s wife) after 13 days — I think they kept me initially to intimidate other missionaries or intimidate other church leaders.
I think by the end of the second month, the very top of the political leaders, the president of Turkey, became involved at that point and they made a decision to hold me, to use me for leverage.
As your wife departed, you called her “the persistent widow.” How did she help you from outside prison during your long stay within it?
When I said “Be the persistent widow for me,” that refers to a parable of Jesus where there’s a widow who cannot receive justice from a corrupt judge, but because she’s so persistent and insists, he at last gives her justice. And I was saying, be that for me, be persistent, don’t give up. And she was truly persistent. She tried in so many ways, with every diplomatic means that was possible, contacting political leaders. And so she was fully engaged and she did not give up and I’m so grateful for that.
You wrote that in some of your letters where you wrote “the Lord,” the prison authorities said you were speaking not of God but of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Islamic cleric who you were accused of supporting. What did you know of Gulen prior to your detention?
I had never met anyone who was part of his movement. I never met what I would call a Gulenist that I was aware of in my life. And so when they accused me of being part of his movement, I mean, they knew it wasn’t true. (The Gulenists) are trying to win people to Islam and I’m trying to win people to follow Jesus, so the idea that we would be working together is just ridiculous.
You described times of emotional and spiritual breakdown. When did you reach your darkest time in prison and how did you overcome it?
There were several very low points. Sometimes I was in a very crowded, an overcrowded cell, but even so I was isolated, especially by my faith. I was the only Christian and I had many questions and doubts and I had no one I could talk with or who could correct me or who could encourage me.
So I had periods where I was suicidal, where I lost all hope. I was in despair and had frequent panic attacks. What made a huge difference for me was the prayer of many people, knowing that they were praying for me. And I began to focus myself on God and fight for my faith. I became aware that I could do very little to fight for my freedom, but I thought, I’m losing my relationship with God in this terrible environment and I need to focus because if I lose this, then I’ve lost everything in my life. I had to cooperate with God’s grace. As I took steps with my will and forced myself, not with my emotions, but making a choice, I’m going to look to God. Then he began to rebuild me.
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Source: Religion News Service