By Abdullah Bozkurt
Source: Nordic Monitor
A criminal investigation was launched in 2016 into Mormons as well as some active-duty and retired US servicemen in Turkey following allegations that were made in a witch-hunt case involving a US pastor.
The investigation is still ongoing.
Some members of the Mormon Church were named as suspects in a controversial indictment filed against Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor who was convicted of willfully and knowingly aiding a terrorist organization on what appears to be dubious evidence.
According to court papers reviewed by Nordic Monitor, a separate investigation is being pursued into a number of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormon Church) on multiple charges. The evidence in the prosecutor’s file is based on allegations that were made in Brunson’s case and largely based on statements from a single witness, whose identity was kept secret.
According to this witness, identified only by the code name “Dua” (Prayer), American officials working for the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) have been using the LDS Church as a cover for intelligence operations while presenting themselves as Mormons in order to hide their activities abroad. The witness alleged that the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CAMA), an evangelical Protestant denomination, has full control over all Christian missionaries abroad including Mormons. He further alleged that CAMA members identify themselves by a secret handshake with middle fingers held down.
The secret witness’s statements, taken by the Izmir prosecutor on February 2, 2017, September 25, 2017 and December 9, 2017, were all viewed as fact with no corroborating evidence and incorporated into the indictment without making an effort to verify the allegations. Although some of the statements made by the witness were not included in the indictment, the prosecutor had the witness testify in court anonymously to add more to his allegations, which later formed the basis of the court’s reasoned decision. Excerpts from the testimony made their way into the final ruling that justified not only Brunson’s conviction but also paved the way for further criminal probes into Mormons in Turkey.
According to the Mormons’ official web page, the church has been active in Turkey since 1850. It has a very small community of 538 members with seven congregations in a nation of 82 million; yet Turkish judicial authorities presented Mormons as one of the most dangerous organizations that threatens Turkish national security.
The Turkish indictment listed Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of the LDS Church in Turkey, as a spy who pretended to be a Mormon. It said Kirkatrick had worked for the US Air Force and Pentagon in the past and was assigned to secret posts in Vietnam as well as the US Logistics Group (TUSLOG) detachment in Turkey. It claimed Kirkpatrick, his wife Elaine (“Elane” in court documents) and many others including active and retired US military personnel working for the LDS Church engaged in espionage under the cover of Christian missionary activities.
According to claims in the indictment, Mormon Church members come to Turkey with their spouses on a 23-month mission, but Kirkpatrick remained 46 months, which raised further suspicions. It also listed Duard Peterson, head of the Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of the LDS Church, as a man who worked for the CIA’s electronic surveillance section. Peterson had close relations with Mormons who were deployed among US troops stationed at Adana’s Incirlik Airbase and often went to Ankara to meet with Peterson. It was further alleged that the Mormons in Turkey are very influential in the CIA, US military and NSA.
Claiming that Mormons make up 40 percent of the US military stationed overseas, the indictment said US Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone secretly met with Peterson at his residence on July 5, 2011. LDS Charities later started working in the Kurdistan region of Iraq at the request of the American envoy after this meeting. The US military provided support to LDS Church activities in Kurdistan while ignoring the Turkmens, the secret witness argued.
Another Mormon Church member who was profiled by Turkish prosecutors was listed as Kenneth Charles Abney, who was claimed to have served in the US Special Forces as a colonel. He came to Turkey in November 2009 and left in September 2011. Abney continued to serve as a preacher in Pennsylvania, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s arch-foe Fethullah Gülen resides. The witness alleged that Abeny and other LDS Church members working for the CIA and US military met every Friday at Izmir’s Efes Hotel, rented by American officials for the servicemen who were deployed at the NATO base in Izmir.
The witness testified that Pastor Brunson got together with Abney and Murat Çakır, the Istanbul representative of the Mormons, at a Hilton hotel in Izmir on March 18, 2011 after Çakır met with Abeny at the latter’s house in Izmir’s Alsancak district. Çakır, a translator, is married to Susan Boone Çakır, a teacher working for a private college in Istanbul that is owned by the family of Bedrettin Dalan, a former mayor of Istanbul. They are both US citizens and maintain a residence in Salt Lake City. The witness alleged that Murat Çakır was the man who greeted American missionaries when they arrived in Istanbul and briefed them on Turkey.
Murat Çakır had worked for the 300th Air Intelligence and Security Wing at the US Army’s Anaconda Logistical Support Area (LSA), also known as Balad Air Base, in Iraq between 2002 and 2005. He had participated in interrogations as an interviewer during the questioning of suspects at Abu Ghraib prison, along with another interviewer named Bruce Jessen. The witness said Çakır had bragged about his experiences at the prison to his friends.
The indictment has also alleged that Abney had obtained the names, identities and work positions of some 700 or 800 employees of the Turkish State Railways (TCDD) and claimed that the sensitive data could be used to break the resistance of rail workers who might sabotage the railroad in the event Turkey were to one day be occupied. Again, this far-fetched claim was based on secret witness testimony.
Another claim seen in the indictment with respect to the Mormon Church is an allegation targeting Graham Fuller, an American author and political analyst who had worked for the State Department and the CIA. The witness claimed that just like Abney, Fuller was also involved with the Mormons. An arrest warrant had already been issued for Fuller by an Istanbul prosecutor over his alleged role in the failed coup of July 15, 2016 and is currently under investigation in case file No. 2016/96115. Another criminal investigation was launched in Izmir when his name was mentioned by the witness in Brunson’s case.
The witness claimed that the Mormons surveyed Turkish villages and towns under the pretext of charity work, collected private data from village authorities by bribing them with computers and photographed Christian and Jewish cemeteries in 2007 and 2008. In another allegation, the witness said the LDS Church’s London branch sent a special team to Turkey to survey gas stations in designated Turkish territories that included the Mediterranean littoral and border areas with Iran, Syria and Iraq. The witness noted that all team members were US nationals and that even an employee from the US Consulate General in Istanbul was embedded in the group. They gathered intelligence on gas stations and relayed the data abroad via satellite every night, the witness added.
During his defense, Pastor Brunson said he had a good idea who the secret witness was and said the witness had attended church sermons given by Fikret Böcek, a pastor at the İzmir Protestant Church, and left the church with a vengeance after encountering problems there. Brunson said the witness had given 10 different statements since 2016 and added new allegations every time he was questioned. Underlining that he was from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Brunson denied secret witness claims of working with the Mormons as the two are completely separate religious groups.
Brunson said he did not know any Mormons mentioned in the indictment and only knew one US service member who used to work at the NATO base in Izmir before his retirement and marriage to a Turkish woman. Denying allegations that he was involved in the failed military coup of July 2016, Brunson said he returned to Turkey on August 9, 2016, some three weeks after the incident, to continue working for his church. He said it made no sense for a suspect to come back to Turkey when so many who were accused of involvement in the abortive putsch had been trying to leave the country.
The indictment, which is full of conspiratorial allegations and lacks any solid evidence, represents the political narrative of the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), rooted in political Islam and led by overzealous Muslim leader Erdoğan. Both the Islamists and neo-nationalists who share power in Turkey are staunchly opposed to Christian minority groups, and missionary work has been under the close surveillance of government security services. The pro-government media often portray Christians as enemies who intend to do harm to Turkey, while prosecutors launch criminal proceedings against Christian clergy.
The indictment against Brunson was filed by Berkant Karakaya, a prosecutor who had worked in the counterterrorism department of the Izmir Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office until September 2018. Karakaya is notorious for going after critics of the Erdoğan government and is known for filing politically motivated indictments that aim to punish Erdoğan opponents. The case was tried in the court by prosecutor Alpay Özbek, and the panel of judges –Oktay Tabur (presiding judge), Muhsin Gökhan Kayra and Selahattin Kırkoç — found the defendant guilty.
Brunson was detained on December 9, 2016 and was held in pretrial detention until July 25, 2018. He was released but placed under house arrest, where he remained until October 12, 2018. At the end of the trial he was convicted and sentenced to three years, nine months in prison on terrorism charges but was released due to time already served. He was freed and returned to the US after the US President Donald Trump personally appealed his case with Turkish President Erdoğan. Brunson was ordered to pay the court costs as well as TL 44,525 ($7,722 ) in translator’s fees.