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Kurdish mayor in exile has audience with Pope Francis at Vatican

Abdullah Demirbas Pope

The former mayor of a historic district in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakır who currently lives in exile had an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday and asked for his prayers for the peaceful settlement of Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish issue, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported.

Former Sur district mayor Abdullah Demirbaş had requested the audience.

During the audience the former mayor presented the pope with a letter and also gifted him a book titled “Mem û Zîn,” a classic Kurdish love story written by Kurdish intellectual, scholar, mystic and poet Ehmedê Xanî in 1692 in addition to an Iranian-made carpet bearing the figure of a Kurdish woman.

In the letter Demirbaş talked about the persecution of the Kurdish people, who he said have been living under the oppression of four countries — Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran — over the course of history and drew an analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the suffering of the Kurdish people. He said just like Jesus allowed himself to be crucified at the sake of spreading this holy mission granted to him by God, the Kurdish people have also been subjected to persecution and suffering throughout history to protect the culture and language granted to them by God.

Referring to the massacres perpetrated by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants against the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria and the efforts by Kurdish groups to fight ISIL, Demirbaş called on the pope to play a role in the improvement of channels of dialogue and tolerance for the protection of beliefs and ethnicities.

Demirbaş was elected mayor of Sur in the local elections of 2004 and 2009 from the ranks of now-closed pro-Kurdish parties. He was removed from office by the government in both of his terms and faced several prosecutions. The prosecutions stemmed from the use of languages other than Turkish, the official language of Turkey, in municipal services in line with his promise to serve the district’s people from different ethnicities in their own languages such as Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic or Syriac.

He was sentenced to prison, was arrested in a crackdown on his party in 2009 and released several months later due to health problems. He left Turkey in 2019 and took refuge in Europe.

The former mayor told DW that he was welcomed very warmly by the pope, who told him he would pray with pleasure for the peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue.

The Kurdish issue, a term prevalent in Turkey’s public discourse, refers to the demand for equal rights by the country’s Kurdish population and their struggle for recognition.

Demirbaş is a campaigner for minority languages and has called on Turkey to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Turkey does not allow its Kurdish people to be educated in their mother tongue, a long-term demand by Kurds.

Demirbaş explained the reason for his prosecution in Turkey and removal from office during an interview with the Israeli Jerusalem Post newspaper last year.

“The reason is because I was Kurdish and I was a dissident. I wanted everyone to have an education in their mother tongue. I wanted them to be able to learn in Kurdish; oppressed people like Kurds are not allowed to study in their mother tongue.”

Turkey first allowed Kurdish language lessons as electives in 2012.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has gone from denying the existence of Kurds to some limited engagement. However, the last years following a failed a coup in 2016 have seen increasing crackdowns on all kinds of dissidents across Turkey, including former allies of the ruling party as well as Kurds.

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