Erdogan hints at releasing US pastor in exchange for Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen

(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.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested that Turkey could release a detained American pastor if the U.S. hands over Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is currently living in Pennsylvania.

Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan, has been blamed for instigating the failed military coup that took place in Turkey last year. But the cleric has denied any role in the coup attempt, in which 250 people were killed.

Turkey has been seeking Gulen's extradition, but U.S. officials have said that the Turkish government has yet to provide enough evidence for the U.S. Justice Department to act.

American Christian missionary Andrew Brunson, who ran a small church in Izmir on Turkey's western coast, was one of the thousands who have been detained in the crackdown since the failed coup.

The pastor has been accused of being a member of Gulen's network, which is considered as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.

"They say 'give us the pastor'. You have a preacher [Gulen] there. Give him to us, and we will try [Brunson] and give him back," Erdogan said in a televised speech, according to VOA News.

"The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not - he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away," the Turkish president went on to say.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, was detained along with his wife, Norine, in October 2016 for alleged immigration violations. Norine was later released, but Brunson's charges were upgraded to supporting Gulen's network.

Last month, the Turkish government charged Brunson with attempting to destroy the country's constitutional order and overthrow their parliament in addition to previous charges of conducting political and military espionage.

Erdogan was given the authority last August to extradite foreigners in exchange for Turkish prisoners abroad in "situations where it is necessary for national security or in the country's interests."

In an interview with Reuters in July, Gulen stated that he would accept extradition if Washington agrees to a request by Ankara to hand him over.

"If the United States sees it appropriate to extradite me, I would leave (for Turkey)," the Muslim cleric said.

When asked about Erdogan's suggestion to hand over Gulen for Brunson's release, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, "I can't imagine that we would go down that road."

"We have received extradition requests for him (Gulen). I have nothing new for you on that. We continue to call for Pastor Brunson's release," she told a daily State Department briefing.

She said that U.S. diplomats were able to visit Brunson on Sept. 18, and contended that the pastor was "wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we'd like to see him brought home."

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