WASHINGTON (CNS) — The free exercise of religion can be a risky thing in some countries, and even Americans practicing their faith abroad can get ensnared.
That was the message delivered by Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, whose father, the Rev. Andrew Brunson, was arrested two years ago by Turkish officials for “Christianization” and is still awaiting trial.
Furnari spoke in Washington during the first day of the July 24-26 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
“Three trial dates have come and gone,” including one in mid-July that was rescheduled for October, Furnari said, adding she believes it is because “there has not been one witness to produce one shred of evidence” to support the charge.
Even so, Furnari said, one judge at a pretrial hearing declared that “all the prosecution witnesses’ testimony would be taken as truth, as there no need for evidence,” meaning “the court has effectively denied him a defense.”
“My family has suffered greatly because of the false and absurd charges,” she said. Furnari got married while her father was imprisoned — but only in a civil ceremony, waiting for him to be freed so he can walk her down the aisle to be married in a church service.
Tearing up near the end of her remarks, Furnari told of the time she and one of her brothers spent one hour last August visiting their father in jail — the only time in 657 days she has seen him. Rev. Brunson was released from prison July 25 but placed under house arrest while awaiting trial.
The pastor had voiced his apprehension of the coming winter. “That he was concerned about the coming winter in August shows you how hopeless he thinks his situation is,” Furnari said, adding her father told them, “My faith teaches me to forgive, so I forgive those who testified against me.”
Johnnie Moore, a vice president at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, spoke in a panel discussion about Iraqis whose homes were devastated by Islamic State militants.
“Our biggest concern is there’s thousands of people on the streets,” Moore said. “Winter is coming!”
Television and movie producer Mark Burnett, another panelist, took that phrase — made popular from the HBO series “Game of Thrones” — and wondered how it could be used to bring attention to the situation of displaced Iraqis.
“Maybe Time Warner, which owns ‘Game of Thrones,’ will send a tweet out: ‘Winter is coming.’ Let’s help these people,” Burnett said.
Both men spoke of attending a 2013 symposium hosted by King Abdullah II of Jordan and also attended by three cardinals, a number of Eastern and Latin patriarchs and several Islamic muftis on the subject of religious pluralism and what Burnett called “the intolerance that leads to violence.”
“I was so uneducated I didn’t know anything” about his religious history, Moore said. Until that time, he added, “it was like Christianity was founded in Jacksonville, Florida.”
“We listened and decided we have some obligation as media personalities, to make people aware of this intolerance,” Burnett said. “We were six months ahead of the worst of ISIS.”
“There’s a disconnect between the East and the West,” said speaker Mick Mulvaney, who wears two hats as director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, during the conference. In the West, he added, “You don’t know what it’s like to be martyred for the cause.”
A Catholic, Mulvaney said, “Religious persecution is not (about) not being able to get fish in the public schools on Friday.”
Rather, he added, “terror is living in the Christian quarter in eastern Syria and a knock comes on your door. You have to pay the tax (required by Sharia law). Last year, it was about, say, $5; this year, it’s $500,000. But (to avoid paying), you have two choices: conversion or death. So how do you feel about conversion? If they didn’t (convert), they’d kill the oldest child. Then the next oldest child” and so on until all the children have been slain, “and then the mother and then the father.”
Mulvaney recalled being invited to a meeting in Rome in 2013 to meet with some Eastern patriarchs. He said he’d thought they’d seek help to leave the region. To his surprise, he said they told him, “No, that’s the last thing we want. That’s what ISIS wants — to clear us out.”
“The next year, the message was entirely changed: ‘Forget what I told you. It’s completely different now. They’re going to kill every one of us if we give them the chance.’ “This,” Mulvaney said, “is what real terror is like.”
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