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    US pastor denies terror links, spying in Turkish court

    ALIAGA, Turkey — An American pastor on Monday denied accusations that he aided terror groups or spied against Turkey, speaking at the beginning of his trial in a case that has strained ties between Turkey and the United States.

    Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina, faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of ‘‘committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member’’ and ‘‘espionage.’’

    Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the coup attempt.


    He served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years. Brunson denies any wrongdoing.

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    ‘‘I don’t accept any of the allegations or accusations,’’ the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Brunson as telling the court in the town of Aliaga, some 40 miles north of the Aegean coastal city of Izmir.

    ‘‘I did not engage in any illegal activity. I had no relations with anyone engaged in such activity,’’ Brunson said. ‘‘I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different.’’

    The agency said the pastor delivered his defense statement in Turkish.

    Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Sam Brownback, US ambassador at large for religious freedoms, observed the trial.


    ‘‘The administration is deeply concerned about this case,’’ Brownback told reporters outside the courthouse. ‘‘We completely believe [that] Andrew Brunson is innocent. We are hopeful [that] the judicial system will find that.’’

    He added: ‘‘You’ll continue to see very high-level US government interest in this until he is released.

    Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison sentence for alleged crimes committed in the name of Gulen’s group and the PKK. They want the pastor to serve another 20 years if he is found guilty of obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes using his religious work as cover.

    The indictment — based on the testimony of witnesses, including three secret ones, and digital evidence — claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord.

    US officials have repeatedly called for Brunson’s release, and President Trump has asked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to have his government ‘‘expeditiously’’ return the pastor to the United States.


    Erdogan fired back at Washington, demanding that the United States return Gulen to Turkey.

    Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told the Associated Press he expected the pastor’s acquittal, arguing Sunday that the ‘‘weak’’ indictment lacked sufficient evidence to make the case hold up in court.

    In a separate development Monday, supporters of Turkey’s main opposition party staged sit-in demonstrations across the country to protest the state of emergency that was declared after a coup attempt in 2016.

    The demonstrations held in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces were organized as Erdogan’s government prepares this week to extend the state of emergency for a seventh time.

    The opposition Republican People’s Party, known as CHP, accuses the government of misusing its emergency powers to bypass Parliament, erode democracy, and to go after government critics.