Beloved Mayor Jailed by Islamist Turkey -- Again -- for His Kindness to Christians, Jews, and Others
Mr. Demirbas suffers from a hereditary form of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which causes blood clotting and can be life-threatening if left without treatment. He had no access to medical care, and his condition got progressively worse.
He was jailed for his attempts to sustain the Kurdish language. He was jailed for his other cultural preservation projects: restoring a synagogue, Armenian churches, Yezidi shrines, and other minority religious sites in his municipality.
Under pressure from local minority groups as well as from international NGOs, Mr. Demirbas was at last released on humanitarian grounds in 2014, and eventually reinstated as mayor. In fact, the European Union gave him a grant to continue his activities. And after two years of legal battles, he succeeded in having all the charges dropped.
Despite the unapproving attitude of the Erdogan administration, Mr. Demirbas got right back to his community-building activities. In 2014, he brought a group of Christians and Muslims to the Vatican for an interfaith group visit with Pope Francis.
When His Holiness visited Turkey later that year, the pontiff asked Mr. Demirbas to accompany him.
Maintaining a close relationship with the Vatican, Mr. Demirbas returned there in May this year. He was accompanied by Hamdi Ulukaya -- the founder of Chobani yogurt. Ulukaya resides in New York, and recently gained acclaim for hiring thousands of refugees to work for his company.
Mr. Demirbas remained active in politics. He was quoted in various news sources about the Turkish election in June, which proved pivotal for the Kurdish party HDP.
Despite the ominous signs of conflict between the PKK and Erdogan’s administration, Mr. Demirbas remained persistent in his peaceful approach. Over the summer, he worked on building sister-city relationships with various countries, including Israel and Armenia.
Mr. Demirbas is a strong advocate of building stronger relationships between the Kurdish community and Israel, a stand that brings him distinction from the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern community leaders at the forefront of news coverage today. Demirbas visited Tel Aviv University and Jerusalem's Hebrew University, attending seminars organized by Professor Ofra Bengio, an expert on Kurdish issues and the Middle East.
In Jerusalem, he spoke about his plan to rebuild the synagogue in Diyarbakir as part of the cultural preservation project that proved to be controversial several years ago.
After his visit to Israel, Mr. Demirbas traveled to Armenia, where he participated in the sixth annual Pan-Armenian games, and he met the Armenian president.
Most recently, he completed a memorial park dedicated to the victims of Ottoman atrocities. Although the park is meant to commemorate all the victims who have died, regardless of ethnicity and religion, it has been widely interpreted as a memorial to the Armenian genocide.
While Mr. Demirbas was traveling, I was working on spreading information about his activities in the United States, setting up potential speaking engagements about his cultural preservation and interfaith work. I was introduced to Mr. Demirbas over the summer, and corresponded with him about his project and the plan to rebuild the synagogue. I thought that as extremism and persecution of minorities is proliferating across the Middle East, Mr. Demirbas' example of courage would be a great learning experience and inspiration to both the Middle East and the West.
Unfortunately, his visions of restoration of buildings and relations -- and my plans for bringing him to the United States -- were curtailed when he was arrested on August 4 and thrown in jail once again.