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White House tries to improve relations with Turkey to secure release of US pastor

(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.

The White House is reportedly trying to improve relations with Turkey in an effort to secure the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held in a Turkish prison since October 2016.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), The Trump administration has been trying to avoid potential problems with the Turkish government in anticipation of Brunson's first court hearing this month.

Brunson, who has led the Protestant Resurrection Church in Izmir for over two decades, is facing 35 years in prison for his alleged ties to a terrorist group.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents Brunson, has recently reported that the indictment against the pastor states that he acted as "an agent of unconventional warfare" under the "mask of evangelical church pastor."

The relationship between Turkey and the U.S. has been under strain recently due to differences in strategy in Syria.

In an apparent attempt to mend its ties with Ankara, the Trump administration has recently urged U.S. lawmakers to drop a legislation that would prevent Turkish officials involved in Brunson's case from visiting the U.S.

In February, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a private meeting that U.S. prosecutors have dropped charges against members of the president's security team, who have been accused of beating up protesters when he visited the U.S. last spring.

Sen. Thom Tillis, (R.-N.C.) said he believes that Brunson is a political prisoner, but noted that the U.S. is working out how "strike a balance" in maintaining ties with Turkey to secure the pastor's release.

Some have raised concerns whether the attempts to appease Turkey would be an effective strategy. "Despite the fact that the Turks have an almost 100 percent track record of responding to sticks, we still feed them carrots. It makes no sense," said an anonymous Senate aide who was familiar with the case.

Erdogan had hinted recently that Brunson can be set free after the U.S. deports Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. The Turkish government has blamed the cleric for the failed 2016 coup.

Last year, a statement from Brunson had urged Trump not to yield to Turkey's demands. "Let the Turkish government know that you will not cooperate with them in any way until they release me," the pastor wrote, according to WSJ.

Brunson is expected to go on trial on April 16. The ACLJ has vowed that it will continue to work with U.S. lawmakers and the State Department to secure his freedom and it has also called on the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to get involved in the case.

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