The American evangelical Christian pastor at the centre of a row between Ankara and Washington arrived at his home in Turkey on Friday after a Turkish court ruled he could go free, a move that may signal a major step towards mending ties between the allies.
Andrew Brunson arrived at his house in the Aegean coastal province of Izmir having left the courthouse in a convoy of cars.
He was released after the court sentenced him to three years and 1½ months in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not serve any further jail time. Mr Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was jailed two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.
US president Donald Trump, who has imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Brunson's freedom, tweeted: "PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!"
Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge's ruling he had told the court: "I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey."
After the ruling, Mr Brunson’s lawyer told reporters the pastor was likely to leave Turkey. The US military planned to fly him home, officials said.
The diplomatic stand-off over Mr Brunson, who led a small congregation at the Izmir Resurrection Church, accelerated a sell-off in Turkey’s currency, worsening a financial crisis.
Mr Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Mr Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.
Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate. Mr Brunson's wife, Norine, looked on from the visitors' area.
Mr Brunson’s mother said she and his father were elated at the news. “We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world,” she said by telephone from her home in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
Mr Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Mr Trump's ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in the November 6th midterm elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.
The heavily conservative evangelical constituency voted overwhelmingly for Mr Trump in 2016. He has called Mr Brunson a "great Christian", and vicepresident Mike Pence, the White House's top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for Mr Brunson.
“We thank God for answered prayers and commend the efforts of @SecPompeo & @StateDept in supporting Pastor Brunson and his family during this difficult time,” Mr Pence wrote on Twitter. “@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!”
US broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Mr Brunson's release. US senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said active engagement by Mr Trump and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo contributed to Mr Brunson's release.
"A lot of factors played into this," Mr Tillis said, adding the United States was trying to "get back to a point of a positive relationship" with Turkey.
The lira stood at 5.9225 to the dollar on Friday evening, slightly weaker on the day after firming 3 per cent on Thursday on expectations that Mr Brunson would be freed.
Relations between the two Nato allies are also under strain over US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey's plans to buy a Russian missile defence system, and the US jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.
With Mr Brunson's release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-US national and former Nasa scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the US consulate who have also been detained.
Washington wants all these people released, while Ankara has demanded the extradition of Mr Gülen. The cleric, who was lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, denies any role in the attempted coup.
Friday’s decision could be a first step to ease tensions, although Turkey’s presidency took aim at what it said was a prolonged US effort to put pressure on its courts.
"It is with great regret that we have been monitoring US efforts to mount pressure on Turkey's independent court system for some time," Fahrettin Altun, the presidency's communications director, said.
Further moves which have been discussed include the return to Turkey of bank executive Mehmet Hakan Attila to serve out his sentence, the release of the US consular staff, and agreement that the US Treasury avoid draconian steps against Halkbank, the state lender.
“Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from any body, authority, office or person,” Mr Altun, the Turkish official, said. “We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will.” – Reuters