By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that Turkey's president has become "a friend" following negotiations to free an American pastor from Turkish custody.
Trump said his administration was "thrilled" to secure Andrew Brunson's release following "a very short and respectful negotiation with a very strong man, and a man who has become a friend of mine fortunately, President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey."
"I called the president and I said ‘he’s an innocent man.’ They’d been trying to get Andrew out for a long time," Trump said, referring to the Obama administration during an event on religious freedom at the UN 74th General Assembly. "I don’t think they tried too hard unfortunately. But I want to thank President Erdogan, and I want to thank you pastor for being here with us today."
Brunson, who was released in October after being charged in the Turkish province of Izmir with being a member of the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), was among attendees at the U.S.-hosted session.
Speaking to religious freedom more generally, Trump called on nations to act on "this urgent moral duty."
"We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith and give glory to God," Trump said, as he announced an additional $25 million in funding to protect religious liberty, as well as religious sites and relics.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used his time addressing the panel to lash out against religious persecution, saying it is "totally unacceptable" for individuals to have their religious freedoms curtailed in the modern age.
He further criticized those who seek to exploit religion for their own ends, cautioning "we must be vigilant about attempts to instrumentalize religion and identity to restrict the full enjoyment of rights by others and to perpetrate or justify inequalities."