U.S. Supreme Court allows public money for religious schools in major ruling

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the separation of church and state in a major ruling on Tuesday by endorsing Montana tax credits that helped pay for students to attend religious schools, a decision paving the way for more public funding of faith-based institutions.

In a 5-4 decision with the conservative justices in the majority and the liberal justices dissenting, the court backed a Montana program that gave tax incentives for people to donate to a scholarship fund that provided money to Christian schools for student tuition expenses.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, represented the court’s latest expansion of religious liberties, a priority of its conservative majority in recent years.

The court sided with three mothers of Christian school students who appealed after Montana’s top court invalidated the tax credit for violating the state constitution’s ban on public aid to churches and religious entities.

Roberts wrote, “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The justices faulted the Montana Supreme Court for voiding a taxpayer program merely because it can be used to fund religious entities, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution’s protection for the free exercise of religion.

President Donald Trump’s administration supported the plaintiffs in the case. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans. Christian conservatives are an important voter bloc for Trump, who is seeking re-election on Nov. 3.

Thirty-eight states have constitutional provisions like Montana’s barring public aid to religious entities. Opponents have said these provisions were the product of anti-Catholic bias and resulted in impermissible discrimination against religion.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that the ruling risks “entanglement and conflict” over where to draw the line between allowing free exercise of religion while protecting against government endorsement of religion, both of which are required under the Constitution.

The decision followed the court’s major 2017 religious rights ruling in favor of a Missouri church, Trinity Lutheran, that challenged its exclusion from state playground improvement grants generally available to other nonprofit groups. The court ruled in that case that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states whose constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

Churches and Christian groups in the United States have sought for years to widen access to taxpayer money for religious schools and places of worship, testing the limits of U.S. secularism.

The Montana tax credit program, created in 2015, provided up to $150 as an incentive for donations to groups that fund scholarships for tuition to private schools including religious schools. In practice, most of the money went to Christian schools. The one such scholarship organization currently operating provides $500 payments to schools, primarily to help lower-income students attend.

The dispute began when state tax officials limited the program to non-religious schools to comport with the state constitution’s prohibition on “direct or indirect” public aid to any church or “school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

Lead plaintiff Kendra Espinoza and two other mothers of students at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana challenged the exclusion, saying state officials infringed their religious rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The Montana Supreme Court struck down the scholarship program entirely in 2018 because it could be used to pay for religious schools. Most private schools in Montana are Christian.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis
By Ellen Francis and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s highest Christian authority called on Wednesday for a change in government to include qualified technocrats and urged the president to begin talks to address demands of demonstrators in the streets for a seventh day.

Throwing his weight behind demands for at least some change in government, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai was the first major religious figure to wade into the crisis.

With a population of 6 million people including around 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has been swept by unprecedented protests against a political elite blamed for a deep economic crisis.

Flag-waving protesters kept roads blocked around the country with vehicles and makeshift barricades on Wednesday, while banks and schools remained shut.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday, to try to defuse the anger of protesters demanding his government resigns and also to steer the heavily indebted state away from a looming financial crisis.

Rai said the measures were welcome but also required replacing current ministers with technocrats.

He did not demand Hariri’s resignation.

Hariri’s government, which took office at the start of the year, groups nearly all of the main parties in the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system.

“The list of reforms is a positive first step but it requires amending the ministers and renewing the administrative team with national, qualified figures,” Rai said in a televised speech.

“We call on the president of the republic … to immediately begin consultations with the political leadership and the heads of the sects to take the necessary decisions regarding the people’s demands,” Rai said.

The president is drawn from his Christian Maronite community.

Political sources said a reshuffle was being discussed. One told Reuters the idea of a change in government was “starting to mature”. “But it is not there yet. Not everyone is at the same state of emergency,” the source said.

“The street is imposing its rhythm on the political class, the political class has to be dynamic with it. It is a standoff – who will concede first?” the source said.

GLOBAL UNREST

Lebanon’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of political protests around the world – from Hong Kong and Barcelona to Quito and Santiago – each having its own trigger but sharing some underlying frustrations.

Lebanese army troops scuffled with demonstrators on Wednesday as they struggled to unblock main roads.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, said Lebanon could not remain in such chaos and said he feared any power vacuum.

“Everything the political class is doing now is clearly to buy time … the reform list is a lie. Today the demand is for the government to fall,” said Manal Ghanem, a protester at a barricade in Beirut.

“We want to get an interim government that holds early elections … We need to stay strong, to stay in the streets,” said Ghanem, a university graduate who works in a coffee shop.

Lebanon’s economy, whose mainstays include construction and tourism, has suffered years of low growth linked to regional turmoil. Capital inflows from abroad, critical to financing the state deficit, have ebbed.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of public debt compared to the size of its economy at around 150%.

The powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and heavily armed, said on Saturday it was against the government resigning and the country did not have enough time for such a move given the acute financial crisis.

The moves announced by Hariri on Monday included the halving of salaries of ministers and lawmakers, as well as steps toward implementing long-delayed measures vital to fixing state finances.

Under pressure to convince foreign donors he can slash next year’s budget deficit, Hariri has said the central bank and commercial banks would contribute 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion) to help plug the gap, including through an increase in taxes on bank profits.

Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on Wednesday following his return from Washington, where the governor attended International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings. He also met a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Eric Knecht, Tom Perry and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

The Middle East and Biblical Prophecy: Watch “The Underground” on the PTL Television Network

Joel Richardson - the Underground on PTL Television Network

By Kami Klein

Every single day world news focuses on the deadly and biblical chess match going on within the Middle East.  Pit against each other and against Israel a complicated whirlwind of hate, violence and the constant threat of war looms over the entire world.  

There are those that have a much deeper understanding of the religious and historical battles going on in the Muslim nations but for many, it is so difficult to comprehend the question,  ‘Who is the enemy?’ Right now with tensions rising, talks of Middle East peace proposals, Iran’s nuclear possibilities and the ever-expanding attacks by terrorist groups, having a biblical and current point of view is vital.  

In our incredible line up of Christian programming, the PTL Television Network offers “The Underground”, hosted by Middle East expert and prophetic author and teacher, Joel Richardson. “The Underground” explores the testimony of  Biblical prophets, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, current events and how all of these things relate to you and me.

With a special love for all the peoples of the Middle East, Joel travels globally, preparing the Church for the great challenges of our time, teaching on the gospel, living with biblical hope, the return of Jesus. He is the author, editor, director, or producer of several books and documentaries, Richardson’s book Islamic Antichrist is a New York Times bestseller.  

In a recent broadcast entitled “The prophetic implication of President Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan”, Richardson speaks on the history of agreements that Israel has entered into within biblical history and the dangers involved now.  His explanation and Bible-based teachings bring a better understanding of what is at stake not only for the Middle East but for the world.

We encourage you to tune into the PTL Television Network for Joel Richardson’s “The Underground” and get a better understanding from an amazing expert on the historical and prophetic events happening in the Middle East.  

You can enjoy “The Underground” as well as many other incredible Christian programs on the PTL Television Network on your Roku, Apple TV or Amazon Fire TV  or you can simply go to PTLnetwork.com and watch whenever you wish on your home computer, tablet or smartphone.  

Be informed on world events by those on the front lines! Check out the PTL Television Network Today!

Protests after Pakistan frees Christian woman sentenced to death over blasphemy

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold their palms to pray in a protest, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday freed a Christian woman from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam and overturned her conviction, sparking angry protests and death threats from an ultra-Islamist party and cheers from human rights advocates.

New Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a warning to the religious right late in the evening that any prolonged blockade of streets would be met with action.

Asia Bibi, a mother of four, had been living on death row since 2010, when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are too harsh and often misused.

She was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. Bibi has always denied committing blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide – Pope Francis said he personally prayed for Bibi – and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who headed a special three-judge bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in the ruling, writing that “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.

In overturning her conviction, the ruling said the evidence against Bibi was insufficient.

Bibi did not appear in the courtroom and her whereabouts were a closely held secret for fear of attacks on her and her family. Many have speculated they will be forced to leave the country, but there was no confirmation of their plans.

Her lawyer called the court ruling “great news” for Pakistan.

“Asia Bibi has finally been served justice,” lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters. “Pakistan’s Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn’t succumb to any pressure.”

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

DEATH THREATS

Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) immediately condemned Wednesday’s ruling and blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in the eastern city of Lahore.

Street protests and blockades of major roads were spreading by mid-afternoon, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.

One of the TLP’s top leaders called for the death of Nisar, the chief justice, and the two other judges on the panel.

“They all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them,” TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore.

“Whoever, who has got any access to them, kill them before the evening.”

He also called for the ouster of Khan’s new government of and for army officers to rise up against powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who he said “should be sacked from the army”.

Khan addressed the nation in a televised speech on Wednesday night, supporting the court ruling and warning the ultra-Islamists not to disrupt the nation.

“We will not allow any damages to occur. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.”

The TLP was founded out of a movement supporting a bodyguard who assassinated Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer for advocating for Bibi in 2011. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed after calling for her release.

In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of Islamabad after small changes to a religious oath taken by election candidates, which it said were tantamount to blasphemy. Seven people were killed and more than 200 wounded in clashes with the police and TLP’s supporters only dispersed after striking a deal with the military.

BLASPHEMY LAW CRITICIZED

In February, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and one of her daughters met Pope Francis shortly before Rome’s ancient Coliseum was lit in red one evening in solidarity with persecuted Christians, and Bibi in particular.

The pope told Bibi’s daughter: “I think often of your mother and I pray for her.”

Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population and are often discriminated against.

Dozens of Pakistanis – including many minority Christians or members of the Ahmadi faith – have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in the past decade, though no one has been executed.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Additionally, at least 65 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, including a 23-year-old student beaten to death on his university campus last year.

“This is a landmark verdict,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International. “The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

U.S. pastor Brunson arrives home in Turkey after release by court

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson arrives home after his trial in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Emily Wither

IZMIR, Turkey (Reuters) – The American evangelical Christian pastor at the center 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 toward mending ties between the allies.

Andrew Brunson arrived at his home in Turkey’s coastal province of Izmir, a Reuters cameraman said, having left the courthouse in a convoy of cars.

He was released after the court sentenced him to three years and 1-1/2 months in prison on terrorism charges but said he would not serve any further jail time. The pastor has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years and was put in prison two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.

U.S. 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, Brunson’s lawyer told reporters the pastor was likely to leave Turkey. The U.S. military has a plan to fly Brunson back to America on a military aircraft, officials told Reuters.

The diplomatic stand-off over Brunson, who had been pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, had accelerated a sell-off in Turkey’s lira currency, worsening a financial crisis.

Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. 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.

Brunson’s wife Norine looked on from the visitors’ area.

Supporters of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson wait near his house in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Supporters of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson wait near his house in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

‘GREAT CHRISTIAN’

Brunson’s mother told Reuters 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.

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Trump’s ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.

The heavily conservative constituency voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Brunson a “great Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for 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,” Pence wrote on Twitter. “@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!”

U.S. broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Brunson’s release.

“After an unjust imprisonment in Turkey for two years, we can all breathe a sigh of relief,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Twitter.

The lira stood at 5.9600 to the dollar at 1530 GMT, slightly weaker on the day after firming 3 percent on Thursday on expectations that Brunson would be freed.

NATO ALLIES

Relations between the two NATO allies are also under strain over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, and the U.S. jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.

With Brunson’s release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-U.S. national and former NASA scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the U.S. consulate who have also been detained.

Washington wants all these people released, while Ankara has demanded the extradition of Gulen. 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 U.S. effort to put pressure on its courts.

“It is with great regret that we have been monitoring U.S. 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 U.S. consular staff, and agreement that the U.S. 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,” Altun, the Turkish official, said. “We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will.”

(Additional reporting by Mehmet Emin Caliskan in Izmir, Ali Kucukgocmen and Sarah Dadouch in Istanbul and Matt Spetalnick, Susan Heavey and Jonathan Allen in Washington, Writing by Daren Butler, David Dolan and Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan, David Stamp, William Maclean)

U.S. Christian pastor leaves Turkish prison after court ruling

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency, DHA via

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A U.S. Christian pastor on trial in Turkey on terrorism charges left prison on Wednesday after a court ruled he should be transferred to house arrest, a step that could help reduce tension between the NATO allies.

Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years and has been detained for the last 21 months, was escorted out of prison by officials in the coastal city of Izmir, live television footage showed. He departed in a convoy of cars.

Brunson, who is from North Carolina, was detained in October 2016 and charged with helping the group which Ankara says was behind a failed military coup earlier that year.

His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Brunson has to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and is banned from leaving the country.

The same court rejected a week ago a call by Brunson’s defense for his release. The state-owned Anadolu news agency said the court had decided, after re-evaluating the case, that he could leave prison on health grounds and because he would be under effective judicial control.

Brunson’s detention deepened a rift between NATO allies Washington and Ankara, who are also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia.

A source in the United States familiar with the developments said the sudden shift came a day before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had been set to unveil a harsh new policy on Turkey.

The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said U.S. and Turkish officials had been working on a deal that would lead to Brunson’s release, with Washington expecting him to be freed at the trial last week.

U.S. officials had been under the impression that the deal was in place, the source said, adding that when Brunson was not released, Pence spoke with President Donald Trump and the two agreed harsh new policy measures were needed to force the issue.

Pence spoke by phone on Wednesday with Brunson, who expressed gratitude for the help from Trump and his top officials in securing his move from prison, the source said.

“LONG OVERDUE NEWS

Brunson was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

The pastor, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed what he said was the “long overdue news” of Brunson’s transfer, but said it was not enough. “We have seen no credible evidence against Mr. Brunson, and call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner,” he said on Twitter.

Financial markets took the transfer order as a positive, seeing in it the potential for improvement in ties between Ankara and Washington.

The Turkish lira strengthened to 4.8325 against the dollar from 4.8599 before the report. Shares of Halkbank, whose former deputy general manager was convicted in January of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, jumped 12 percent.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s fate to that of the Muslim cleric Gulen, whose extradition from the United States has been a long-held demand of Turkish authorities. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup bid.

Trump said in a tweet last week that Brunson was being held hostage and that Erdogan should “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father”.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence system.

(Additional reporting by Omer Berberoglu in Istanbul; Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans and David Dolan; editing by David Stamp and Mark Heinrich)

Turkish court keeps U.S. pastor in jail, Washington says deeply concerned

Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed pastor Andrew Brunson, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal A

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ALIAGA, Turkey (Reuters) – A Turkish court decided on Wednesday to keep an American pastor in jail, dashing hopes that he could be released during his trial on terrorism and spying charges, a case that has deepened a rift with NATO ally Washington.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, as well as supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

Brunson, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

“It is really hard to stay in jail and be separated from my wife and children,” Brunson, wearing a black suit and a white shirt, told the court in Turkish.

“There is no concrete evidence against me. The disciples of Jesus suffered in his name, now it is my turn. I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’s name.”

President Donald Trump has called for his release and the U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

The U.S. envoy to Turkey said he was “disappointed” by the ruling by the court in the Aegean province of Izmir where Brunson had been living.

“Our government is deeply concerned about his status and the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rules,” Charge d’affaires Philip Kosnett told reporters outside the courtroom.

“We have great respect for both Turkey’s traditional role as a haven for people of faiths and Turkey’s legal traditions. We believe this case is out of step with these traditions,” he said.

NEW WITNESSES

Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third-largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga where he is now on trial.

His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt had raised hopes that he could be released as the prosecution witnesses finish testifying.

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson's wife Norine Brunson leaves from Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson’s wife Norine Brunson leaves from Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

But Halavurt said on Wednesday the prosecution has added the testimonies of two new anonymous witnesses to the case and that the court will hold its next

hearing on October 12 to hear them and view new evidence.

Turkey’s lira weakened against the dollar immediately after the ruling, reflecting investor worries about tensions with the United States. It was nearly half a percent weaker on the day, at 4.8215 at 1234 GMT.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases that have raised tensions between Washington and Ankara. A U.S. judge sentenced a Turkish bank executive in May to 32 months in prison for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, while two locally employed U.S. consulate staff in Turkey have been detained.

The NATO allies are also at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, where Washington’s ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia Turkey says is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Philip Kosnett, U.S. Charge d'affaires in Turkey, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Philip Kosnett, U.S. Charge d’affaires in Turkey, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

The Turkish government says Brunson’s case will be decided by the courts. But Erdogan has previously linked his fate to that of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt and whose extradition Ankara seeks.

Gulen has denied having any link to the failed coup, in which at least 250 people were killed.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dominic Evans, David Dolan and Andrew Heavens)

Turkey’s Erdogan says U.S. should look at its own actions if it wants jailed pastor freed

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 18, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said the United States should look at its own actions if it wants the return of an American Christian pastor who has been jailed in Turkey for suspected links to a 2016 failed coup.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Erdogan made the comment in a live interview with broadcaster NTV.

Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for the failed coup against Erdogan. He faces up to 35 years in prison. Brunson denies the charges.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s fate to that of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt. Gulen has lived in the United States since 1999 and denies the charges. Turkey is seeking his extradition from the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump and dozens of U.S. senators have urged Erdogan to release Brunson.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones)

‘Angels’ and training help former fighter pilot save Southwest flight

Emergency personnel monitor the damaged engine of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which diverted to the Philadelphia International Airport this morning after the airline crew reported damage to one of the aircraft's engines, on a runway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Makela

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – The pilot who safely landed a stricken Southwest Airlines flight on Tuesday got her first flying experience in the U.S. Navy, touching down F-18 fighter jets at 150 miles per hour on aircraft carriers.

Tammie Jo Shults, 56, may have drawn on her Navy skills when one of the two engines on her Boeing 737-700 blew and broke apart at 32,000 feet on Tuesday, forcing her to implement a rapid descent toward Philadelphia International Airport.

The explosion killed one passenger and nearly sucked another out of a shattered window.

One of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, Shults calmly told air traffic control that part of her plane was missing, and she would need ambulances on the runway.

“So we have a part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” Shults told a controller.

Many of the 144 passengers sang her praise on social media after Shults thanked them for their bravery as they left the plane.

“The pilot Tammy Jo was so amazing! She landed us safely in Philly,” said Amanda Bourman on Instagram.

Passengers identified Shults as the pilot. Southwest Airlines declined to name the crew of flight 1380 and Shults was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities said the crew did what they were trained to do.

“They’re in the simulator and practice emergency descents..and losing an engine… They did the job that professional airline pilots are trained to do,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters.

“GOD SENT HIS ANGELS”

Shults might never have become a pilot if she had not been so determined to fly from a young age.

She is quoted on fighter plane blog F-16.net saying she tried to attend an aviation career day at high school but was told they did not accept girls.

A native of New Mexico, she never lost the urge to fly and, after studying medicine in Kansas, applied to the Air Force. It would not let her take the test to become a pilot, but the U.S. Navy did.

She was one of the first female F-18 pilots and became an instructor before she left the Navy in 1993 and joined Southwest, according to the blog.

A Christian, who is married to a fellow pilot and has two children, Shults said that sitting in the captain’s chair gave her “the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight.”

Bourman was among passengers who said they had been saved by divine intervention.

“God sent his angels to watch over us,” she said.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; Editing by Neil Fullick)

Militants free scores of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls after month in captivity

Some of the newly-released Dapchi schoolgirls are pictured in Jumbam village, Yobe State, Nigeria March 21, 2018. REUTERS/REUTERS/Ola Lanre

By Ola Lanre and Abraham Achirga

DAPCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Islamist militants freed scores of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls on Wednesday, driving them back into the town where they had been captured a month ago.

The captors gave no reason for their release, which triggered celebrations and tears, but the government denied that a ransom had been paid. Several of the girls said some of their friends had died in captivity and one was still being held.

The fighters from the Boko Haram group, some shouting “God is greatest”, drove the girls back into the northeast town of Dapchi in a line of trucks in the morning and dropped them off before leaving, witnesses told Reuters. Some residents fled as the convoy rolled in.

“I don’t know why they brought us back but they said because we are children of Muslims,” one of the freed girls, Khadija Grema, told Reuters.

After the release, in the nearby village of Jumbam, some of the girls held each other and wept, huddling on the ground in beige hijabs as residents stood around them.

Aliyu Maina, reunited with his 13-year-old daughter, said the fighters “stopped and blocked the road, they didn’t talk to anybody, they didn’t greet anybody”.

“They said people should make space for people to recognize their children and I got my child.”

Boko Haram has waged a insurgency for nine years in northeast Nigeria and neighboring states in which tens of thousands of people have been killed, more than 2 million displaced and thousands abducted.

A 2015 military campaign drove the group from most territory it controlled, but much of the area remains beyond government rule, and insurgents still stage attacks from strongholds near Lake Chad.

The kidnapping of 110 girls aged 11-19 on Feb. 19 from Dapchi was the biggest mass abduction since Boko Haram took more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014 – a case that triggered international outrage.

Dapchi residents said more than 100 girls had returned on Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Nigerian government was transporting the girls by bus to Maiduguri, one of the largest cities in the northeast and the hub for the fight against Boko Haram.

“One girl is still with them because she is a Christian,” said Grema, the freed student. “About five are dead but it was not as if they killed them – it was because of the stress and trauma that made them tired and weak.”

“They didn’t harm us,” Grema added. “They were giving us food, very good food. We didn’t have any problem.”

She described how, after the kidnapping, the girls were transported by car and canoe, moving through villages and along waterways to a safehouse.

Another girl who gave her name as Fatima said two of her friends were among those who died, trampled as they were being transported.

“They kept us in a big, covered house where no one could spot where we were, even by air we could not be seen,” said Fatima.

Muhammad Bursari said his niece Hadiza Muhammed, another of the freed girls, told him the remaining student was still in captivity because she had refused to convert to Islam.

NO RANSOM

Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, said in a statement 101 released girls had been registered so far.

“No ransom was paid to them to effect this release,” he told Reuters separately. The only condition they gave us is not to release (the girls) to the military but release them in the town of Dapchi without the military presence.”

Nigeria had secured the release “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country,” Mohammed said in the statement.

“For the release to work, the government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls, hence a non-violent approach was the preferred option,” it said.

Boko Haram never explained why the girls were taken, but many Nigerians speculated that the goal was ransom. Boko Haram received millions of euros for the release of some of the Chibok girls last year.

The abduction piled pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 2015 promising to crack down on the insurgency. He is expected to seek re-election next year.

Mohammed Dala said he had found his 12-year-old daughter in a crowd of the girls in the center of town.

“Some motors painted in military color came with our girls,” he told Reuters. “They (the militants) … said we should not flee. They dropped the girls at the center of town, near Ali’s tea shop. I found my daughter and left.”

Most of the other girls were taken to a hospital guarded by the military, witnesses said.

(Reporting by Ola Lanre and Abraham Achirga in Dapchi, Afolabi Sotunde and Felix Onuah in Abuja, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi and Ahmed Kingimi in Maiduguri; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Peter Graff)