US pastor held in Turkey for his Christian faith, lawyer says

IZMIR, Turkey, April 15 (Reuters) - The lawyer for a U.S. pastor who goes on trial in Turkey on Monday over alleged links to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup said the preacher had been arrested for his Christian faith.

Ismail Cem Halavurt said pastor Andrew Brunson, detained 18 months ago, faced the "totally unfounded" charge of aiding a terrorist organization and should be freed at Monday's hearing in the Mediterranean city of Izmir.

A Christian pastor from North Carolina living in Turkey for 23 years, Brunson has been indicted on charges of helping the group that Turkey holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan.

24 PHOTOS
Failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan
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Failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: Soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrender on Bosphorus bridge with their hands raised on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: Soliders involved in the coup attempt surrender on Bosphorus bridge on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16:(EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) A dead body of a Turkish soldier lies on the ground after soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrendered on Bosphorus bridge July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
An unidentified soldier accused of attempting to assassinate Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the failed last year's July 15 coup, is escorted by gendarmes as he leaves from the final hearing of the trial in Mugla, Turkey, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz
An unidentified soldier accused of attempting to assassinate Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the failed last year's July 15 coup, is escorted by gendarmes as he leaves from the final hearing of the trial in Mugla, Turkey, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
Supporters of President Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags during a trial for soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate the president on the night of the failed last year's July 15 coup, in Mugla, Turkey, October 4, 2017. The placard reads that: "We want execution!". REUTERS/Osman Orsal
A member of police special forces stands guard during a trial for Turkish soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the failed July 15 coup, in Mugla, Turkey February 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz
Police vehicles patrol during a trial for Turkish soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate President Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the failed July 15 coup in Mugla, Turkey, February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz
Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate after around 50 soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: Soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrender on Bosphorus bridge with their hands raised on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
A heavily armed sniper guards the car of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following a funeral service at Fatih mosque for victims of a thwarted coup in Istanbul, Turkey, July 17, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
MUGLA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 04: Defendant Abdulhamit Gul Erdem, who is charged with attempting to assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as part of the defeated July 15, 2016 coup, is being taken to prison under heavy security measures at the Mugla Chamber of Commerce and Industry's conference hall in Mugla, Turkey on October 04, 2017. During the night of the coup attempt, two police officers were martyred at the scene of Erdogan's hotel in the port town of Marmaris. The case involved 47 suspects, including 43 who were jailed pending trial and two suspects who remain at large, all charged with being part of the 'assassination team' targeting Erdogan. (Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Families of victims killed on Bosphorus bridge wait to enter the court on October 9, 2017 at the Silivri prison courthouse, in Istanbul, during a trial of 143 soldiers accused of causing the deaths of 34 people on Istanbul's first Bosphorus bridge on the night of last year's failed coup. Almost 150 former Turkish military personnel go on trial Monday over clashes on an Istanbul bridge during last year's failed coup that claimed dozens of lives including a key aide of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The bridge across the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul was the scene of bloody fighting between Erdogan's supporters and renegade soldiers seeking to oust the elected government on the night of July 15, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
MUGLA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 4: Defendant Yucel Ekizoglu (C), who is charged with attempting to assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as part of the defeated July 15, 2016 coup, is being taken to prison under heavy security measures at the Mugla Chamber of Commerce and Industry's conference hall in Mugla, Turkey on October 4, 2017. During the night of the coup attempt, two police officers were martyred at the scene of Erdogan's hotel in the port town of Marmaris. The case involved 47 suspects, including 43 who were jailed pending trial and two suspects who remain at large, all charged with being part of the 'assassination team' targeting Erdogan. (Photo by Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 18: Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan light flares as they gather in Istanbul's central Taksim Square on July 18, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Clean up operations are continuing in the aftermath of Friday's failed military coup attempt which claimed the lives of more than 232 people. In raids across Turkey 7,543 people have been arrested in relation to the failed coup including high-ranking soldiers and judges, Turkey's PM Binali Yildirim has said. (Photo by Kursat Bayhan/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: People gather for celebration around Turkish police officers, loyal to the government, standing atop tanks abandoned by Turkish army officers, against a backdrop of Istanbul's iconic Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, July 16, 2016, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: People gather for celebration around Turkish police officers, loyal to the government, standing atop tanks abandoned by Turkish army officers, against a backdrop of Istanbul's iconic Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, July 16, 2016, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, had been closed to traffic.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 21: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference after the National Security Council and Cabinet meetings at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 20: A man waves a flare from the Republic Monument in Taksim Square on July 20, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced tonight a three month state of emergency following Friday night's failed coup. Clean up operations are continuing in the aftermath with the death toll now standing at 246 and 1536 wounded. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: Clothes and weapons beloging to soldiers involved in the coup attempt that have now surrendered lie on the ground abandoned onBosphorus bridge on July 16, 2016, Istanbul,Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: An unidentified man uses his belt to hit Turkish soldiers involved in the coup attempt that have now surrendered on Bosphorus bridge on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 16: People walk and clean up around the damage and debris at the Turkish parliament which was attacked at least three times through the night during a military coup on July 16, 2016 in Ankara, Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left high fatalities and thousands injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Erhan Ortac/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 21: Citizens light torches and wave Turkish Flags as they gather at Millet Park, close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's residence in Istanbul, during a march, staged to protest and to show solidarity against Parallel State/Gulenist Terrorist Organization's failed military coup attempt, in Istanbul, Turkey on July 21, 2016. Parallel State is a terrorist organization leaded by U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, who is accused of a long-running campaign to overthrow the state through infiltrating into Turkish institutions, particularly the military, police and judiciary, forming a parallel state. (Photo by Abdullah Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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His trial is one of several legal cases which have strained relations between Turkey and the United States, who are also at odds over U.S. support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Monday's court session will be attended by North Carolina senator Thom Tillis and U.S. envoy for religious freedom Sam Brownback.

"There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith," Halavurt told Reuters on the eve of the trial, saying Brunson's religious role had been "classified as aiding terror organizations."

Washington has called for Brunson's release while Erdogan suggested last year his fate could be linked to that of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.

"The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not - he is living in Pennsylvania ... You can give him right away," Erdogan said in September. Gulen has denied any link to the coup attempt in which more than 240 people were killed.

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President Trump's meeting with Tayyip Erdogan
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President Trump's meeting with Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump as they make statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S President Donald Trump (L) talks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives at the entrance to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
U.S President Donald Trump watches as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan departs at the entrance to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and U.S President Donald Trump deliver statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S President Donald Trump watches as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan departs at the entrance to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with U.S President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - ' TURKISH PRESIDENCY / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with US President Donald Trump (R) during the G20 Leaders' Summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 07, 2017. Germany is hosting leaders from the worlds 20 largest economies at the Hamburg summit on July 7-8, set to focus on the global economy, trade, climate change, and the fight against international terrorism. (Photo by Turkish Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MAY 16: U.S President Donald Trump (R) and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) hold a joint press conference after their meeting at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, United States on May 16, 2017. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MAY 16: President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) is welcomed by U.S. President Donald Trump (L) ahead of their meeting at the White House in Washington, United States on May 16, 2017. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) leave after speaking to the press following meetings in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, May 16, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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Izmir's prosecutor's office said that sufficient evidence was obtained to charge Brunson with aiding armed terrorist organizations and obtaining confidential government information for political and military espionage. The prosecution is seeking a jail sentence of up to 35 years.

A copy of Brunson's indictment seen by Reuters accuses him of working both with Gulen's network and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Halavurt said he believed Brunson would ultimately be acquitted, and there was no reason for his continued detention during trial. "Our prior expectation from the hearing is ending the arrest," he said. "We want Brunson to be freed immediately."

At the Resurrection Church in Izmir, the congregation prayed on Sunday for Brunson, and his wife Norine read out a message in which he talked of the darkness and silence of his detention. He signed it off: "Your brother Andrew, imprisoned for God."

(Editing by Dominic Evans and David Evans)

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