President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned the U.S. that sanctions would not force Ankara to “step back” after Donald Trump threatened to punish Turkey if a U.S. pastor was not freed, in comments published Sunday.

“You cannot make Turkey take a step back with sanctions,” Erdogan said in his first comments since relations soured after Trump threatened the measures Thursday if Pastor Andrew Brunson was not released.

“The U.S. should not forget that it could lose a strong and sincere partner like Turkey if it does not change its attitude,” he was quoted as saying by Hurriyet daily.

Relations between the NATO allies have worsened over the jailing of Brunson, who ran a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir.

He was held in a Turkish jail for almost two years on terror charges but was placed under house arrest on Wednesday.

Trump on Thursday hit back at the move, calling for his immediate release and warning that the U.S. would impose “large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment” of Brunson.

Ties had already been strained over multiple issues including Washington’s support of a Syrian Kurdish militia which Turkey views as a terrorist group and the failure to extradite the Pennsylvania-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Ankara accuses Gulen of ordering the 2016 failed overthrow of Erdogan, a claim he strongly denies.

The Washington Post Friday reported a deal between Ankara and Washington was made to secure the release of a Turkish woman imprisoned in Israel in exchange for the freedom of Brunson.

Ebru Ozkan, 27, had been held for over a month by Israel on charges of passing hundreds of dollars to a “terrorist” group but returned to Turkey on July 16.

The newspaper said the agreement was “personally sealed” by Trump but fell apart when Brunson was transferred to house arrest.

Erdogan addressed the claims, stressing that Turkey had “never made Pastor Brunson a bargaining chip.”

However, he said Ankara had asked for Washington’s help in securing Ozkan’s return home.

“But we didn’t say: ‘In return for this, we will give you Brunson’. Nothing like this was discussed,” Erdogan insisted in remarks to journalists during a visit to South Africa.

Brunson risks up to 35 years in jail if found guilty of charges of carrying out activities on behalf of two groups deemed by Turkey to be terror organizations – the Gulen movement and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Brunson rejects the accusations while U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted the pastor is innocent.

Erdogan in September suggested Turkey could free Brunson if the U.S. handed over Gulen – an offer brushed off by Washington.

Source: National News Agency