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Pastor talks of breakdown in Turkey, but also forgiveness

Pastor Andrew Brunson speaks during an interview at the headquarters of Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Va., Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. Brunson was recently released from prison in Turkey. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — The American pastor recently released after two years of confinement in Turkey said Friday that he suffered a breakdown during his time in prison and was put on anti-anxiety medication.

Andrew Brunson said he was deprived of books — even a Bible — for long stretches of time. For eight months, he spent 24 hours a day with more than 20 men in a cell designed for eight.

But the worst of it, he said, was the uncertainty. The pastor who had led a small congregation faced the possibility of life in a Turkish prison if convicted on charges of terrorism and related counts, accusations he still calls “ridiculous.”

“I didn’t do very well,” Brunson said of living in the crowded prison cell. “It was very high stress, and I was sleeping three to four hours maximum a day. And I was really struggling a great deal. I didn’t know how long this would continue. I didn’t know why I was in prison.”

He added: “I really had a breakdown emotionally. And I received medication for anxiety because I was just a basket case.”

Sitting next to his wife, Norine, Brunson spoke inside the Virginia Beach headquarters of the Christian Broadcasting Network after an interview on “The 700 Club,” among other CBN shows. The network closely followed his ordeal, which became a cause celebre for evangelical Christians as well as President Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, Brunson was convicted in Turkey and sentenced to more than three years in prison. But he was freed and allowed to leave for the two years he had already spent in custody. For the past few months, he had been on house arrest.

Brunson was accused of links to Kurdish militants and a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom Turkey blames for a failed coup in 2016.

Upon his return, Brunson, 50, visited the White House and placed his hand on Trump’s shoulder in prayer before asking God to provide the president “supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for him.”

Trump was insistent on Brunson’s release without conditions. And the president maintained there was no deal for Brunson’s freedom.

Brunson said Friday that he was unaware of any deals. And he pointed out that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously suggested trading Brunson for Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of engineering a failed coup in 2016. The swap was never made.

The Brunsons, who spent 25 years in Turkey, said they still love the country but can’t return any time soon. They said they don’t know what’s next, but they view their ordeal as part of God’s plan.

“We haven’t done anything great,” Brunson said. “But for so many people in so many countries to be praying for us, this is something that God did. It wasn’t just to bless me. He’s using that to bless Turkey.”

In the meantime, the couple is still recovering from the past two years, which included Norine Brunson’s arrest with her husband and the two weeks she spent with him in prison.

She was released and allowed to stay in the country while he was shipped around to various prisons. Their children, then ages 15, 18 and 21, were in the U.S. and have remained there.

The Brunsons said they still don’t know why the Turkish government made its accusations. Their missionary work was legal and out in the open for more than two decades.

But they said they were American Christians, who are viewed with suspicion in Turkey. And they were there after the failed coup.

Brunson said Turkish authorities never offered any proof to support the charges; no emails, no social media postings or recordings.

But people the Brunsons had known testified against him. It’s something the pastor is still processing.

“It’s not an option not to forgive; we are required to as Christians,” Brunson said. “Is it easy? No. But God forgave me. As I get emotions that come back, I say, ‘I forgive.'”

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