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USCIRF vice chair recounts meeting with jailed American pastor in Turkey

(YouTube/OfficialACLJ)Pastor Andrew Brunson appears in a screen capture of a video from the YouTube channel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

Kristina Arriaga, who serves as the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has shared more details about her meeting with American Pastor Andrew Brunson when she came to visit him in a Turkish prison last fall.

In October, Arriaga and fellow USCIRF Vice Chair Sandra Jolley went to Kiriklar Prison in Izmir, Turkey to pay a visit to Brunson, who has been imprisoned for over a year over his alleged links to armed terrorist organizations.

During the release of Open Doors' 2018 World Watch List on Wednesday, Arriaga gave further details about their meeting with the American pastor.

While they were on a delegation trip to Istanbul, Arriaga and Jolley received a call informing them that they would be able to meet with Brunson.

She recounted that apart from Brunson's wife and the consular officer, they were the only ones allowed to visit the pastor.

When they arrived at the prison, the delegates were "fully searched" before they were eventually taken to a visiting room, which Arriaga described as having the "feel of an interrogation room."

She noted she had only seen Brunson through photos that prior to the meeting, and when she saw the pastor when he entered the room, "[h]e didn't look at all like his picture." She believes that the pastor had lost at least 50 pounds during his time in prison.

"His belt barely held up the pants that he is wearing. He was confused and disoriented. We said our names and the first thing he said was, 'I might not remember.' I said, 'It's OK,'" Arriaga recalled.

Arriaga said that Brunson was not aware of the charges against him and that there is a "secret testimony" against him that has not been seen by his lawyer.

"He asked us, 'How can a NATO ally country do this to me?' What are the charges filed against me? Am I going to be here for the rest of my life?'" Arriaga narrated.

The USCIRF delegate noted that Brunson is confined to a small cell with two other inmates and he is only allowed to leave it once a week to see his wife. "Most of their visits take place with plexiglass between them," Arriaga said, according to The Christian Post.

Brunson was initially detained in a cell meant to accommodate only eight men but was crowded with 21 prisoners. Since being moved to Kiriklar prison, the conditions have improved for the pastor.

According to Arriaga, Brunson is now allowed to meet face to face with his wife, without a plexiglass separating them, but only once a month.

"We talked for an hour. That was surreal and bizarre. We tried to comfort him as best we could. At the end, you know what his biggest fear is? It wasn't torture. It wasn't the fact that he isn't allowed to leave his cell. ... His biggest fear is to be forgotten," Arriaga said.

Brunson has been allowed to communicate with USCIRF through letters, although the communication comes with many delays. The pastor was also allowed to have "six or seven books in his cell," Arriaga said.

Arriaga noted that Brunson was "very comforted' by the idea that people are advocating for his release. She pointed out that several government officials, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, are supporting efforts to secure the pastor's freedom, and she vowed that USCIRF will continue to draw attention to his case.

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