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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