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The trial of US evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson began on Monday in Turkey, accused of helping groups that allegedly staged a failed coup there in 2016. The case is further depleting relations between the United States and Turkey.
The trial is taking place in Aliaga, a city on the Aagean Sea north of Izmir. Brunson, 50, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection of Izmir and has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. He faces up to 35 years in prison.
"I've never done anything against Turkey, I love Turkey, I've been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want the truth to come out, "he said, according to Reuters. "I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment, I was never involved in illegal activities."
Originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, Brunson was arrested in October 2016 in a government offensive after the attempted military coup. Thousands of Turks were fired from their jobs, detained or arrested while the government sought to punish those they considered loyal to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and blames the government for the failed coup.
"There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested for his faith," said Brunson's lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, before the trial.
The BBC reports that Turkey had originally accused Brunson of belonging to the Gulen network and the militant group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but changed the charges before the test. Now he is accused of helping groups, but not of being a member.
In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if the United States wants Brunson released, he should extradite Gulen. "You also have a pastor," Erdogan said in a speech, adding, "You grant us that and we will work with our judiciary and we will return yours."
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, RN.C., is in Turkey for Brunson's trial, as is Sam Brownback, Trump's ambassador in general for religious freedom.
"The United States is deeply concerned about our relationship with Turkey," Brownback told reporters during a break, according to Reuters. "That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward while Andrew Brunson is incarcerated."
Brunson's daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told NBC News before the trial that her father's mood had improved recently, and that she had begun to win back some of the 50 pounds she had lost in detention.
"I'm not sure exactly why my father was chosen," he said. "He is a pawn in a political game between Turkey and the USA."
He added: "He has not done anything wrong, he is a loving and peaceful man, he is a pastor, these accusations are absolutely absurd."