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Missionaries and the Middle East
Turkey Arrests American Pastor as Terrorist

Behold the mighty power of the Gülenists: they lurk behind every threat to the Turkish state (and its glorious leader, Erdogan). They can even subvert Evangelical pastors into their Islamic network—or so says the Turkish government. Sohrab Ahmari’s important piece in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of an American pastor and his wife, Andrew and Norine Brunson, who have lived and worked in Turkey for the past 23 years without incident but were detained in October in Izmir. Norine was released after two weeks, but Andrew has been transferred to a special counterterror prison and charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” By which, apparently, they mean the Gülenists.

As Ahmari points out, “Brunson’s treatment is also symptomatic of growing Christian persecution in Turkey”:

“Turkish President Erdogan sees anti-Christian conspiracy theories as an effective strategy for galvanizing popular support for his one-man rule,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A pro-government columnist in July claimed that Mr. Gülen’s mother is Jewish and his father an Armenian. Mr. Gülen himself “is a member of the Vatican Council” who “uses the methods of the Jesuit Order that captured the Vatican.” Another columnist the same month asked whether Gülenists might be hiding “in churches.” Still another tabloid doctored photographs to suggest Mr. Gülen is a Roman Catholic prelate.

Mr. Erdogan’s defenders insist the president has no say over what’s printed in the papers. But that’s hard to believe in a country where the state has banned at least 120 news outlets in six months. Nor is the government’s own rhetoric much better. At an anti-coup rally in August, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denounced Turkey’s enemies as a “crusaders’ army.”

Pastor Brunson’s story also highlights an under-recognized dynamic: the significance of American missionary ties to the Middle East. These are longstanding: American missionaries were some of the main sources through which Americans learned of the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915; ties to the region kept the U.S. from declaring war on the Ottoman Empire when it entered World War I; and the American missionary colleges played an important role in the development of early Arab nationalism, to list just a few examples.

But long gone are the times when missionaries’ accounts filled the New York Times. Missionary work now generally occurs far from elite circles. That does not mean it does not continue—and continue to have an impact on politics and policy. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in 2015:

Evangelical missionaries aren’t fashionable topics today, and missionary history is almost totally neglected by the educational establishment, but the almost 200 years of American foreign missions has been one of the most consequential long-term movements in American history.

American missionaries played a crucial role in the rise of Christianity in East and South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands and of Protestantism in Central and South America—an epic tale of courage, sacrifice (and occasional follies and missteps) that, for most Americans under 50, is completely unknown and untold. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionaries opened professional doors to women both here and abroad, helped lead lead the the attack on segregation in the United States upon their return (to say nothing of the anti-slavery movement), and spread ideas about democracy, development, and medical education around the world. Missionaries and their children have also been closely involved with American foreign policy and diplomatic service.

You can spend a lifetime in elite American schools and colleges without knowing that any of this ever happened—or that more than 100,000 Americans are serving abroad in this capacity today. This is one of many ways that Americans are losing touch with some of the important values and movements that shaped and continue to shape this country and the world.

While the persecution of Christians in Turkey is a new story (and one that may or may not grow, depending on what direction Erdogan, with his increasing power, steers the country), the persecution of Christians in the Middle East has been at a crisis level for several years. This makes mainstream liberals uncomfortable for several reasons, and tends to be downplayed in the pages of major newspapers as a result. But accounts of it filter back to mainstream Americans through thousands of communities tied to missionaries like Pastor Brunson.

This may go some way toward explaining the different opinions Jacksonians and coastal elites have of the Islamist threat from the Middle East, with latter tending to see the problem as largely contained and the former seeing it as reaching crisis proportions. Whatever you may think of each camp’s perspective, it’s hard to call the heartlanders less informed on this issue.

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  • leoj

    Once Turkey is removed from NATO, we can have an honest discussion concerning the Occupied Territories–of Byzantium.

  • RedWell

    Good and necessary points, here. “Elites” are certainly ill-informed on this issue. I’d say “heartlanders,” though, have been dropping the ball, also, for some time.

    While many American missionaries are seriously engaged in places like the Mid East, their tendency to anti-intellectualism has meant that there are few systematic histories or accounts of their work. That makes it hard for outsiders and the mainstream media to access.

    There are some examples of activism shaping US foreign policy, such as toward Sudan in the GW Bush administration. Again, though, between to coastal tendency to not see this kind of impact and Evangelicals own tendency to not engage in coherent ways with “the mainstream,” this work is likely to remain invisible.

    • Jim__L

      Why engage something (like the Mainstream media and academic establishment) who are uniformly implacably hostile to you? What would that engagement bring aside from heaps of scorn, twisting of one’s words and motives, and other complete wastes of time?

      Better to simply go out and do the good works that you’re called to do.

      They are not on the same side as mainstream “intellectualism”, but the people who are “anti-” are the intellectuals who are anti-religion, not the other way around.

  • FriendlyGoat

    1) Well, good on TAI for reporting news and views that other organs do not.
    2) It would be interesting to know whether the 100,000 missionary workers (2015 number, presumably similar now) view the Trump election as a positive or a negative development for the work they are doing in the various places they are doing it.
    3) It’s a little hard to tell whether Trump’s presidency might cause Erdogan to get better or to get worse.

    • Jim__L

      Getting the Democrats out of the White House is definitely a good thing for Christian mission work everywhere — especially in the USA.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Well, we do know that a bunch of average voters think they can preach Jesus and Donald Trump at the same time. I’d like to think that at least some of the missionaries see that as duplicitous. If they don’t, it would make one wonder how they ever got into ministry in the first place.

        • Jim__L

          FG, the subject is the fact that Democrats are bad for Christians in this country and throughout the world. Donald Trump is an improvement, whether he’s a good person or not.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The SUBJECT was me wondering whether the missionaries view DJT as a help or an ultimate hindrance to their work around the world in the places they are doing it. And I still do. Meanwhile, all you’re doing is needling for the sake of needling and painting a very negative picture of The Church in America. Stay tuned, Jim. What you’re celebrating is soon to turn sour among plenty of the people who voted for it.

          • Jim__L

            And once again you don’t respond at all to the fact that the DEMOCRATS are entirely anti-religious, or at least (like you) any religion that does not bow down before the Democrats’ party platform.

            FG, the reason I keep bringing this up is that I would like nothing better than for you to show that you have some independence of thought apart from the Democrats’ platform — that the words of the Bible mean enough to you that they can sway your mind away from any of the Democrats’ abhorrent practices, which you instead embrace.

            What you do instead is keep on assuming — contrary to continuous evidence — that others are as singlemindedly partisan as you are. I am not celebrating a Trump victory, or even a Republican victory. I am celebrating Clinton’s defeat. I have no illusions about Trump’s (Bill) Clintonian personal failings, I have no illusions about his indifference to many things I value greatly. But many of his actions — for example, nominating a FIRE supporter as Secretary of Education — he is *already* proving himself to be a VAST improvement over the status quo.

            I fully expect that Trump will at some point do something I will disagree with, even disagree vehemently with. Being a natural-born contrarian, I would actually be shocked if he didn’t. No illusions there.

            But the fact remains — the Democrats, *yourself included*, are deeply hostile to the vast majority of Christians and the practice of Christianity independent (and critical) of the Democrats’ social agenda. The fact that Democrats representing this nascent persecution of Christians were defeated is a reason for all Christians to celebrate.

            Except maybe quasi-Christians ones like you that think that anyone who disagrees with the somehow-infallible Democrats deserves to be persecuted.

  • Jim__L

    “While the persecution of Christians in Turkey is a new story”

    No. It is a very, very old story. Asia Minor has been home to Christians as long as Christianity has existed, and as long as a Turkey (and before it, an Ottoman Empire) persecution of Christians has been very active there.

    I’m very close to not caring whether Putin crushes Erdogan and annexes Turkey.

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