By Donnelly McCleland

As relations between the United States and Turkey have soured in recent months, Ankara has stepped up its pursuit of better relations and increased trade with Europe and Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the leaders of Britain and Germany on 27 August to discuss strengthened ties even as his government warned the United States that recently imposed US tariffs on Turkish goods threaten to destabilise the Middle East. (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

A variety of grievances on both sides

The relationship between long-time NATO allies, the United States and Turkey, deteriorated rapidly this month as ‘tit-for-tat’ economic tariffs saw Turkey’s currency (the lira) plummet by almost 20% in one day. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned that the US trade sanctions against his country could destabilise the Middle East further and ultimately encourage terrorism and worsen the refugee crisis.

President Trump’s abrupt increase in tariffs on Turkish goods appeared to be a response to Turkey’s refusal to release an American pastor. But the escalation also reflects multiple deep-seated grievances between the two nations. Turkey, a country of 80 million that straddles Europe and Asia, has long played a vital role in the stability of the Middle East. There have, therefore, always been considerations and strategic constraints to the US implementing harsh measures against Ankara – such as Washington’s reliance on Incirlik Air Base, a need to keep Turkey out of Russia’s arms, and maintaining an important NATO alliance in the Middle East.

Some analysts have traced the decline in Turkish-US relations back to 2003, when the Turks refused to allow American troops to transit through Turkey in the American-led invasion of Iraq. But tensions seemed to truly come to a head in President Obama’s last year in office when Turkey accused the US of involvement in the failed coup attempt. Central to this claim was the US refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, an influential Turkish cleric and former ally of Mr Erdoğan, who he regards as the instigator of the failed coup. Gülen, who has lived in exile in the US since 1999, denies these claims.

When it comes to military matters, there have also arisen stark differences between the two nations. In the war in Syria, the US has consistently supported and armed the Syrian Kurdish militia in their fight against Islamic State, whereas Mr Erdoğan maintains they have links to a Kurdish separatist group (in Turkey) that is considered to be a terrorist organisation.

America’s military relations with Turkey were strained further when Turkey signed a deal in September 2017 to purchase a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Such a deal means that Russian military technicians could be operating in NATO’s backyard. This deal was struck while Turkey was in the process of purchasing American F-35 joint strike fighters. US Congress has since moved to block delivery of the aircraft unless Turkey cancels their deal with Russia.

On top of all these issues, Mr Erdoğan has lashed out about the prosecution of Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla in a New York court case concerning the evasion of US sanctions on Iran. Halkbank is one of Turkey’s largest state banks, and as such, Ankara fears that a US Treasury fine would trigger a domino effect in the Turkish financial system, at a time when the economy can ill afford it.

The pastor at the centre of the ‘storm’

Despite it being clear that the deterioration of Turkish-American relations is a complex issue, there are those who maintain that it is primarily about one man, American pastor Andrew Brunson. However, he could be a political pawn in the tussle between two strongmen, Mr Erdoğan and Mr Trump. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused Mr Trump of not wanting to solve his country’s disagreements with the United States over the jailed pastor. “It seems that they do not want to solve these problems, that they are manipulating them for their domestic political concerns,” Çavuşoğlu said. His statement mirrored speculation that Mr Trump was reluctant to pursue a diplomatic resolution to Brunson’s situation so as to “shore up electoral support among his ‘religious right’ constituents before the US mid-term elections in November”. Beril Dedeoğlu, a professor at Galatasaray University and Turkey’s former minister of European affairs, maintains that “the Brunson crisis is not the real matter of the crisis.” He added that the Trump administrations’ current policy towards Turkey is a clear example of “brinkmanship” (pursuing a dangerous policy to the limits of ‘safety’ before stopping). Turkey has likewise attempted to use Brunson as a bargaining tool for Gülen’s extradition, among other goals.

Fifty-year-old Andrew Brunson is married with three children, and at the time of his arrest in October 2016, had lived and ministered in Turkey for 23 years. He was legally leading a small congregation at the Resurrection Church in the Aegean port city of Izmir when he was caught up in the aftereffects after the coup attempt. He was accused of “supporting terrorism” – as were most foreign nationals detained during that period – by way of his alleged links with both the Gülen movement and Kurdish separatists. If convicted, he faces a possible 35-year sentence. But he continues to maintain his innocence. “My faith teaches me to forgive. I forgive all those who testified against me,” he said at a hearing in July. “I leave these people to God.”


A Turkish Christian publisher and ministry leader in Turkey shared his insights with INcontext on the situation in the country and how it is impacting believers. Turkish believers comprise a very small minority group within the country and find themselves caught up in these unfolding political events. He explained the impact on believers: “Andrew Brunson is a well-known pastor and brother here in Turkey. He served in very tough places and challenging conditions. His situation has shaken our communities.” He elaborated about Brunson’s arrest: “Before his arrest, some foreign workers were already deported from Turkey, but his arrest was very shocking to us all. The accusations against him were at a very high level.”

Believers are convinced that Brunson finds himself caught in a political struggle, but that he is not guilty of any crime. However, there are extremists within the country using the incident to fan the flames of hate against other Christians, even blaming them for the deepening economic crisis.

Believers in Turkey have asked for prayer during this time as they are experiencing greater scrutiny and pressure. They request prayer for their nation and for those leaders currently attempting to resolve the crisis, and also for Pastor Brunson and the Christian community – for their protection and that they may continue to be salt and light in their communities even in these trying circumstances.


  • For the leadership of both countries to find a lasting resolution to the crisis
  • For a just outcome for Pastor Brunson
  • For the safety of Turkish believers during these tense circumstances