A US pastor has flown out of Turkey after a court freed him from two years of detention, in a step that could improve US-Turkish ties strained by disputes over Syria, Iran and Ankara’s planned purchase of Russian military equipment.
Pastor Andrew Brunson was expected to land at Joint Base Andrews near Washington on Sunday (Saturday local time) after a stop in Germany for a medical check-up.
Pastor Brunson was jailed two years ago and had been under house arrest since July.
He was accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey’s government for a coup attempt in 2016.
The Turkish court sentenced Brunson to three years and one-and-a-half months in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not serve any further jail time and freed him.
Pastor Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, denied the accusations and Washington had demanded his immediate release.
President Donald Trump said Pastor Brunson would likely visit the White House Oval Office on Sunday (Saturday local time).
Asked if US sanctions imposed on Turkey to try to win Brunson’s release might be lifted, Mr Trump said no agreement was made for the pastor’s freedom.
“There was no deal made at all. There was no deal. But we’re very happy to have him and have him in good shape,” Mr Trump told reporters in Cincinnati.
The diplomatic fight over Pastor Brunson had accelerated a recent sell-off in Turkey’s currency, worsening its financial crisis.
Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, Pastor Brunson wept as the court decision was announced, witnesses said.
Before the judge’s ruling, he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”
Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimony against the pastor attributed to them was inaccurate.
Mr Trump has used the Brunson case to try to score points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, ahead of the November 6 congressional elections, which will determine whether Republicans keep control of Congress.
He has called Pastor Brunson, a native of North Carolina, a “great Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for Pastor Brunson.
US broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Pastor Brunson’s release.
Relations between the two NATO allies have been under serious strain over US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defence system, and the US jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.
The release of Pastor Brunson could help ease tensions, but political analysts say many unresolved problems remain.