NC Pastor Andrew Brunson released from Turkey, meets with President Trump

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NC Pastor Andrew Brunson released from Turkey, meets with President Trump

An American pastor originally from North Carolina is back in the United States, after he was detained for nearly two years in Turkey.

"We want to spend time with our children especially, and that takes some time to pray and see what God wants for the next part of our lives," said Andrew Brunson, as he sat next to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office Saturday afternoon.

Brunson, along with his family, met with the President, various US officials, and Senators Tom Thillis and Richard Burr of North Carolina, amongst others.

A Turkish court on Friday convicted Brunson of terror charges but released him from house arrest and allowed him to leave Turkey, a move that's likely to ease the tensions between Turkey and the United States.

Brunson is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina. His plight in Turkey created headlines in the Tar Heel state and caught the attention of Sen. Thom Tillis and other political leaders.

The court near the western city of Izmir sentenced Brunson to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison for the conviction, but since the evangelical pastor has already spent two years in detention he won't serve more time.

The charge of espionage against him was dropped.

Brunson, whose detention sparked a diplomatic dispute between the two NATO allies, had rejected the espionage and terror-related charges and strongly maintained his innocence. The United States had repeatedly called for his release and in August slapped sanctions on Turkey.

Lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Brunson, 50, was expected to leave Turkey for the United States.

The evangelical pastor had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was one of thousands caught up in a widespread government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.

He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups and of alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.

Brunson told the court he is "an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey."

Prior to returning to the United States, Brunson stopped in Germany, where he was greeted by US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.

"He had an American flag to give us that had flown over the American embassy in Berlin. And I took it, and I very naturally kissed it. I love this country, and we pray for this country," Brunson said.

His daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, who has publicly spoke on his behalf since his imprisonment, shared her reaction to his release.

"When I got the call this morning that my Dad was released, I was absolutely shocked. I was incredibly relieved to know that he's coming home," said Furnari.

Brunson specifically mentioned Sen. Tillis as one of several US leaders to have provided support. Tillis recalled visiting Brunson while he was detained in Turkey.

"I remember vividly the first time I went to Turkey. It was when Pastor Brunson was concerned, we were going to forget him. It was important for me to look him in the eye and tell him, nothing could be further from the truth," Tillis said.

At one point of Saturday's gathering, Brunson got down on a knee, put his hand on the President's shoulder, and prayed for him.

His trial came as Turkey and the United States are embroiled in another major diplomatic incident regarding a Saudi writer - U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi - who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. Turkish officials claim the writer may have been killed inside the Saudi diplomatic mission. Saudi officials reject the claims as "baseless."

Earlier, the court called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at the previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. The new witnesses did not confirm Kalkan's accusations. Another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.

Brunson again denied accusations that his church aided Kurdish militants, saying he had handed over a list of Syrian refugees whom the congregation had helped and adding that Turkish authorities would have identified any terrorists.

"We helped everyone, Kurds, Arabs, without showing any discrimination," he said.

The pastor was imprisoned for nearly two years - detained in October 2016 and formally arrested in December that year - before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.

The court's decision at the time failed to improve tensions between the two NATO allies. Washington slapped sanctions on two Turkish officials and doubled tariff on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. Those moves in August, coupled with concerns over the government's economic management, helped trigger a Turkish currency crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had resisted U.S. demands for Brunson's release, insisting that the courts are independent. But he had previously suggested a possible swap of Brunson and the Pennsylvania-resident Fethullah Gulen - the cleric accused of being behind the coup.

Gulen has denied the claim.

Brunson led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, with top representative Tony Perkins monitoring the trial, has listed him as a "prisoner of conscience."

William Devlin, an evangelical pastor from New York spoke to reporters outside the Turkish prison, saying hundreds of thousands of Christians were praying for Brunson's release.
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(Copyright ©2018 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved - The Associated Press contributed to this report.)