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Turkish President Suggests Swap of Muslim Cleric for Jailed U.S. Pastor

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Thursday that if the U.S. wants jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson back it needs to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

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

"You have a pastor too," Erdogan reportedly said of the U.S., adding, "You give us that one and we'll work with our judiciary and give back yours."

Andrew Brunson, a pastor at the Izmir Resurrection Church, has lived in Turkey for over 20 years but was arrested last October because officials claimed he was a "national security risk" for unspecified involvement in “terrorism.”

Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have advocated on the pastor’s behalf. Trump even brought the issue up with Erdogan during a meeting in May.

The American Center for Law and Justice and the Family Research Council have also been advocating on the pastor’s behalf, raising concerns that Brunson is being held as a pawn for Erdogan on baseless charges in violation of his right to religious freedom.

Fethullah Gulen lives in a compound in Pennsylvania, but has millions of followers in Turkey. He is accused of involvement in a coup to remove Erdogan.

Gulen commented to NPR on Turkey’s attempts to extradite him, "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."

State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that she “can't imagine that we would go down that road."

"We have received extradition requests for him [Gulen]," she said. "I have nothing new for you on that. We continue to call for Pastor Brunson's release."

“It is something that the President had raised with Mr. Erdogan not too terribly long ago,” she added. “The State Department has been in as close of contact as we can be with Pastor Brunson. We were last able to visit him on September the 18th.”

She said the U.S. continues “to advocate for his release. He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we’d like to see him brought home.”

Senator James Lankford (R-OK) called Erdogan’s suggestion for a swap “appalling.”

“President Erdogan’s suggestion that the US should make a hostage-style prisoner swap for an innocent American imprisoned in Turkey is appalling and will not be taken seriously,” Lankford said Thursday. “Turkey has long been a US ally, but has chosen to complicate and weaken its relationship with the US and other free nations of the world through its increasingly autocratic policies.”

“The US will not stand idly by as these oppressive tactics target American citizens,” he added. “Turkish officials responsible for the prolonged, unjust imprisonment of Dr. Andrew Brunson, or any American, should be denied the privilege of entry in the US.”

Lankford visited Turkey in December to advocate for Brunson’s release.

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