WASHINGTON — The daughter of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson gave an impassioned speech during the first-ever State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, choking up a bit as she shared how her father feels "blessed" to suffer for his faith in Christ.
Jacqueline (Brunson) Furnari was among the family members of persecuted believers who shared the stories of persecution that their respective loved ones have faced at the State Department headquarters Tuesday, kicking off a much anticipated three-day conference on international religious freedom that the federal government has never hosted before.
"I know my dad's character as only a daughter can, and I know the charges against him are absolutely absurd and false," she told the hundreds gathered at the Harry S. Truman Building, asking them for prayers for her father's release. "He is not an armed terrorist trying to overthrow any government. He is a pastor who went to Wheaton College and on to seminary and got a Ph.D. in New Testament."
For the past two decades, the North Carolina native has served the Turkish people as a church leader in Izmir. But on Oct. 7, 2016, Brunson was arrested and held for over a year before finally being charged with having connections to Kurdish militants and the Islamic Gulen movement that the government accuses of staging the July 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government.
The pastor has maintained his innocence and pressure from the U.S. continues to build as prominent lawmakers have said that the prosecution lacks credible evidence and have long called for his release.
Last week, Brunson appeared in court for his third hearing. Despite hopes that the court would release Brunson, he was again remanded back to prison until his next hearing in September.
"It is important to note that during these three [hearing] dates, there has not been one prosecution witness that has been able to provide one shred of evidence that support their ridiculous testimony — a fact that my father pointed out during the May 7 trial date and a fact that none of the judges on the panel seem to care about," Furnari said. "The head judge personally told my father that all the prosecution's witness testimony is simply being taken as truth therefore there is no need for any evidence."
As the testimonies of the prosecution's secret witnesses appear to be based off of second and third-hand information, United States senators have equated Brunson's imprisonment to an attempt by the fellow NATO member nation at hostage diplomacy.
Erdoğan has even suggested himself that Brunson's fate is tied to United States-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Furnari, who grew up in Turkey and graduated from the University of North Carolina, told the crowd that her father has missed two of the most important days of her life because the Turkish government has decided to use her dad as a political pawn.
Furnari got married in civil court in February 2017, despite the fact that she had picked out a wedding dress and was excited to have the wedding of her dreams. But because of her dad's imprisonment, she and her husband have decided to hold off on having a big church wedding until her father is able to come home and walk her down the aisle.
"I got married and neither of my parents were present. I will never get that moment back," she explained. "For those of you that have daughters, I know that you understand how important and special it is for both you and your daughter to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. My father didn't get to do that. I am still waiting for my wedding and I am still waiting to wear the wedding dress that I got more than two years ago. I am still waiting for my dad to walk me down the aisle and I am still waiting for my father-daughter dance."
Last December, Furnari graduated from college.
"One of the ways that my father has shown his love to my brothers and I is that he has invested so much in helping us plan out our futures and our career paths. He missed seeing me achieve yet another life milestone," she added. "My brother is graduating from college this coming December as well. He would love to be at least at that one."
Furnari explained that although her dad has lost at least 50 pounds in jail and looked to be a shell of his former self, he has explained in letters that the thing that has pained him the most about his imprisonment is missing out on spending time with his family.
Furnari added that Brunson has missed out being there for her older brother to help him make career choices and seeing his accomplishments at Cornell University.
Brunson has also missed out on being there for his younger son, who is in his senior year of high school.
"These are the things that pain my dad the most — not being able to be with us and missing out on life with his family," she said.