Beloved Mayor Jailed by Islamist Turkey -- Again -- for His Kindness to Christians, Jews, and Others
"You know, he is in prison now. He is really not doing well. His daughter was visiting, and he was coughing blood."
"He asked for you by name, you know.”
"He asked his daughter to find you. He is asking you to save him. Please help him."
“I will do everything possible,” I responded. I had no qualms about saying “Here I am.” I only had one question -- what took them so long?
And then I slipped back into the darkness, carrying in my mind the clandestine message I received in the middle of the night. The next week-and-a-half turned into a blur, as I worked feverishly in my capacity as a lawyer and human rights advocate, and as it turned out, also a detective and journalist, piecing together bits of scattered information to present a portrait of someone I have never met to everyone I could ask to intervene on his behalf, needing to save him from imminent death in a Turkish prison.
My attempt to bring together the different parts of Abdullah Demirbas’ life and to introduce this figure -- beloved in his own town but virtually unknown in the West to elected officials, media, activists, and my own social circles -- turned into an international quest, from the streets of Sur in Diyarbakir to the Vatican, Israel, and Armenia.
After battling through language constraints, disparate pieces of information, well-hidden articles, and voices of activists from every imaginable background, I have come away with an understanding of a peacebuilder and interfaith activist who should be a hero of both the right and the left in this country. But despite a compelling New York Times profile, his story is only now coming out of the shadows as part of a rescue mission.
Abdullah Demirbas is the former mayor of the municipality of Sur in Diyarbakir (Southeastern Turkey, also known as "Northern Kurdistan"), and remains a central and beloved figure in his community. He grew up in Sur facing intolerance of his Kurdish culture, and eventually became a vocal fighter for the preservation and protection of Kurdish language. He wished not only to prevent the language of his family from disappearing forever, but also to ease access to education and literature through translation efforts. He developed a project that translates Turkish books into a variety of languages, including Kurdish, English -- and even Hebrew.
He has been a staunch defender of minority rights in Turkey -- he was the first Turkish public official to apologize to the Armenian community, albeit for the role of the Kurds in the murder of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. (Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the genocide in any form.) Demirbas reached out to every minority group, from the Armenians to the Chaldeans.
Notably, Demirbas offered help to the Chaldean Catholic vicar in Diyarbakir, a man named Francois Yakan. Yakan runs an organization called Ka-Der.
Ka-Der's mission? To assist Iraqi Christian refugees in Turkey.
Demirbas' other work promoting Kurdish culture through the dissemination of literature had always aroused the ire of Turkey's increasingly repressive Islamist government. Was this aid given to Christians the final straw?
Abdullah Demirbas was forcibly removed from office by the Ministry of Interior in 2007 and thrown in jail. This act is just one of the scores of charges that the Erdogan regime -- a regime which has managed to curry favor and close relations with the Obama administration -- has since brought against national treasure Demirbas.
He is now terribly sick. And I was told he asked for me by name for help.