President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatened Thursday to impose “large sanctions” on its NATO ally Turkey if that country does not release an American pastor currently under house arrest.
“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,” tweeted Trump.
“He is suffering greatly,” Trump added. “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
Brunson, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina, was arrested in 2016 during a government crackdown on journalists, academics, and Christian minorities, that followed an attempted coup.
He was released on house arrest Wednesday and ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device.
Prior to Trump’s tweet, Pence made a similar threat. “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this man of faith and send him home to America,” he told attendees at a Ministerial on Religious Freedom at the State Department, “the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
“While he is out of jail he is still not free,” Pence said in his speech.
“And to President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the President of the United States of America,” he continued. “Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.”
The Trump administration has long highlighted Brunson’s case, raising it with Turkish officials and in statements in the media. Still, Thursday’s threat of sanctions marks a distinct escalation in rhetoric that coincides with a broader cooling in the US-Turkey relationship.
Trump and Pence have had multiple conversations with officials in the Turkish government regarding the detained American pastor in recent weeks, an administration official tells CNN.
Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke specifically about the issue during a mid-June call, the official said. However, the White House did not issue a readout of the call.
Turkey was not the only country to face pointed criticism in Pence’s remarks. The Vice President also berated the governments of North Korea, China, Russia, Nicaragua, and Iran, over treatment of religious communities in their respective countries.
While he welcomed a recent, partial diplomatic thaw between the United States and North Korea following last month’s summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pence insisted, “there is no escaping the plain fact that North Korea’s leadership has exacted unparalleled privation and cruelty upon its people for decades.”
“Torture, mass starvation, public executions, murders and even forced abortions and industrial scale slave labor, have been the means by which that regime has retained hold on its power for more than 70 years,” said Pence. “Today, as we gather at this ministerial, and estimated 130,000 North Koreans are imprisoned for life in unimaginably brutal slave labor camps.”
Pence also criticized the government of Iran, less than a week after Trump tweeted an ALL CAPS warning to that country’s president to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
“We recognize that the Iranian people enjoy few, if any, freedoms,” said Pence, “least of all the freedom of religion.”
“The people of the United States of America have a message to the long-suffering people of Iran,” he went on to say. “Even as we stand strong against the threats and malign actions of your leaders in Tehran, know what we are with you.”
The remarks follow similar efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department to highlight anti-government dissent in Iran.