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Kurdish, once banned, to be taught in Turkey

By Suzan Fraser, Associated Press, 11/09/2009

Turkey's higher education authority on Thursday approved a proposal to teach Kurdish, which was once banned from the country, at a Turkish university for the first time.

Turkey is gradually expanding Kurdish language rights and the move comes as the government is seeking nationwide support for a yet to be announced plan to end the country's 25-year-old conflict with autonomy-seeking rebels.

Some officials have said the government could rename thousands of Kurdish villages that have Turkish names and expand Kurdish language education as part of the initiative.

Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, who heads the country's higher education board, told reporters following an eight-hour meeting that an institute to teach "Living Languages in Turkey" would be opened at Mardin Artuklu University, in southern Turkey.

The institute would teach Kurdish and other regional languages, including Persian, Arabic and Syriac _ a language similar to the Aramaic once spoken by Jesus Christ.

At first, the institute would only teach postgraduate and doctorate level students, Ozcan said.

"The main aim of the institute is to train the would-be faculty staff that we will need once undergraduate programs begin," Ozcan said.

Speaking Kurdish was banned in Turkey until 1991.

Prodded by the European Union, which has been pressing Turkey to strengthen Kurdish rights, the country has allowed private language schools to teach Kurdish, and some Kurdish-language radio and TV to operate. In January, the government launched a 24-hour state-run Kurdish television station.

In a gesture to the minority Kurds, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also uttered a few words in Kurdish on the day the station was launched.

A pro-Kurdish party on Thursday welcomed the move but urged the government to take bolder steps.

"A taboo is being broken, it is an important step, of course," Selahattin Demirtas, a senior lawmaker from the Democratic Society Party, told The Associated Press.

"But the government is acting very timidly," he said, arguing that it had included Arabic and other languages in the institute, mindful of a possible backlash from nationalist circles. Nationalists oppose expansion of the Kurdish language in Turkey, fearing it would help break up the country along ethnic lines.

Demirtas said the party also wants Kurdish to be taught at primary schools and middle schools.

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