As I write, three people in my parish have been on hunger strike since March 14th 2019. As Parish Priest of St John Vianney Church, West Green, London N15 my concern is for people who are living within the parish boundaries. The Kurdish community centre is based in the parish. This is why I've been concerned about the Turkish/Kurdish conflict for many years.
I, as part of the Imrali Delegation made up of twelve or so international members, have made several attempts to visit Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader. He has been in prison since 1999, and is considered the 'Nelson Mandela' of the Kurdish people. This status can give you a picture of who he was and what he stood for. (We note that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for life, He served 27 years. His crime was treason.
Circumstances changed and so did his status). Mr Ocalan was a founder member of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), and as such fought for the freedom of the Kurdish people against an oppressive regime in Turkey. Their identity, their history, their language and social customs were denied; while not ideal, violent opposition was considered the only solution. Ever since, the PKK are on the International Terrorist list. The fact that the PKK policy of violence had eventually ceased as a result of Abdullah Ocalan's peace plan, has not been recognised internationally. Mr Ocalan has declared that the way forward is through peaceful negotiations. Progress had been made up to 2015. But it's very hard to negotiate from a prison cell in solitary confinement! The hunger strikes we are witnessing here and in other countries are not violence against others, but a dramatic plea for a peaceful resolution to Abdullah Ocalan's situation.
There have been many delegations and requests made to the Turkish Government that visits be allowed to Mr Ocalan by his family and his lawyers. Neither of these has been allowed a visit in the last four or five years. This is against the Turks' own constitution and all International Law.
I have been part of the Imrali Delegation visiting the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. We had dialogue with members of the Council against torture and pleaded for members of the Council to visit Abdullah Ocalan on Imrali Island. These efforts have led nowhere. I was one of the groups who launched 'The Freedom of Abdullah Ocalan Campaign' in Brussels in 2012. Two years later we presented 10.3million signatories to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg; still no response on the part of the Turkish Government or the Council of Europe. With those doors closed, what is one to do? (The efforts of the Imrali Delegation are now in book form: "Your Freedom and Mine", edited by T Jeffrey Miley and Federico Venturini).
Seeing that so many negotiation attempts have failed, the Kurdish people have turned to 'Hunger Strikes'. It is sad that people have to put their lives at risk in order to be heard.
The plea behind the hundreds who are on hunger strike is to demand that Abdullah Ocalan be removed from solitary confinement and be allowed visits by his lawyers and family. These are basic human rights that are currently being denied by the Turkish Government. Nobody wants to hear this request.
In my various presentations I've been comparing the current Turkish/Kurdish conflict to the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. It is a mirror-image. I remember when I came from Ireland to work in London as a priest in 1971, there was an atmosphere of suspicion and Irish people were suspects of being members or supporters of the IRA! Our own Prime Minister, Theresa May, stated publicly in the presence of Mr Erdogan that all Kurdish people were 'terrorists'. This has serious implications for all our perceptions of the Kurdish cause.
The central part of the problem is that the PKK are still on the International Terrorist list. The logic therefore is, "You don't have to negotiate or dialogue with terrorists". Governments and individuals can 'wash their hands' of the whole affair and turn a blind eye. Is this just?
Meanwhile the Kurdish Community have turned to Amnesty International for help. This has turned out a complete disaster. I can say little at present as the four-day occupation of the Amnesty office is under investigation. But what it means is that another door is 'closed' for the Kurdish Community.
My immediate concern now is the health of the three people on hunger strike in the Kurdish Community Centre, Green Lanes. This is happening in the parish I am responsible for. Speaking to the three, Ali Poyraz, Nahide Zengin and Mehmet Sait Yilmaz are determined to see the protest out to the end. They began their hunger strike on March 14, 2019. While I do not agree with their extreme action, I feel responsible for what is happening in the parish boundaries. I don't want to have 'blood on my hands'.
This is now a desperate situation. Do we all wait until someone dies and then take some action? It will be too late. Now is the time for action and dialogue with all parties concerned.
We've seen in recent days the call by Fr Martin Magill at Lyra McKee's funeral in Belfast. Why does it take the death of innocent people to rouse us into action? And we seem to need the lone voice of a 15 year old girl, Greta Thunberg to call us to serious action on Climate Change.
This long Open Letter, is a plea for action by anybody who has a voice in the matter of raising awareness of the plea from the Kurdish Community. Another reason for my writing is I don't want anybody to say - "Nobody told us so!"
Many thanks for reading this. Can I ask you to consider your own stance on this matter and if you can take the request further, especially to the Turkish Government and other interested, responsible parties. I am not disputing the strategy of hunger strikes but the simple request that Abdullah Ocalan be removed from solitary confinement and his family and lawyers be allowed to visit him. Please do what you can.
Fr Joe Ryan
St John Vianney's Catholic Church
West Green, London N15 3QH
For further information, contact [email protected]
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