Following the trial of U.S. evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson in Izmir, Turkey, on Monday, the U.S. State Department said it is convinced the Turkish government does not have any "credible evidence" to convict the pastor of terrorism charges.
"The entire U.S. government is following Mr. Brunson's case closely. We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent," a statement released by the federal agency on Monday night reads.
"We believe that Turkey is a state bound by the rule of law, and we have faith in the Turkish people's commitment to justice. We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair, and transparent manner."
Brunson, 50, a Presbyterian minister who lived in Turkey for 23 years and ran a small church in the southwestern city of Izmir, has been in custody since October 2016. He is being accused by the government of seeking to convert Kurdish people to Christianity in order to establish a Kurdish state, which violates Turkish policy.
The pastor finally received his day in court on Monday; however, he was remanded back to prison. Another hearing is scheduled for May 7.
"I want the whole truth to be revealed. I reject all the accusations in the indictment. I haven't been involved in any illegal activity," Brunson told the court, according to Turkish newspaper The Hürriyet Daily News.
"I haven't done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years," the pastor added.
Prosecutors accused Brunson of using missionary activities as a cover to work with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and with the organization of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who Turkey says orchestrated a 2016 coup attempt.
The indictment against Brunson is largely based on anonymous witnesses, some of whom testified on Monday. If found guilty, the pastor faces 35 years behind bars.
Brunson denied the accusation that he was involved in Gulen's movement, which is Islamic, calling it an "insult" to his religion.
"I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement," Brunson said, adding that the 18 months he has spent in a maximum security prison has left his "psychology broken."
Sen. Thom Tillis, from Brunson's home state of North Carolina, attended the hearing in Izmir, as did Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
"The United States cares deeply about our relationship with Turkey," Brownback told reporters. "That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated."
Despite Monday's verdict, Brunson told NBC that relatives were happy the case was moving forward but concerned it could drag on further.
"Everyone in the family is holding their breath," said Jacqueline Furnari, Brunson's daughter, who was raised in Turkey but moved back to the U.S. several years ago. "Of course I have hope; I want to get a call saying my father is coming home."
She called the charges against him "absolutely absurd," adding: "They want to put him in prison for 35 years on charges of terror and espionage, and he is already 50 years old, so that means he would spend the rest of his life in jail. My dad is a loving, caring, Christian pastor. He never worked on behalf of any terror organization."