.
.
.
.

Muslim shrine testifies to Iraq's vanished Jews

Muslims revere tomb’s Jewish, Christian figures

Published:

Nearly everyone who could read the Hebrew verses carved into the walls of Ezekiel's tomb left Iraq almost 60 years ago, but their memory is preserved in what is today a revered Muslim shrine.

Between 1948 and 1951 nearly all of Iraq's 2,500-year-old Jewish community fled amid a region-wide outbreak of nationalist violence, but today Iraq's Muslims and Christians still visit its most important holy sites.

In the little town of Kifl, south of Baghdad, the shrine of Ezekiel—the prophet who followed the Jews into Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC -- has long been a part of Iraq’s millennia-old religious mosaic.

A 14th-century brick minaret tilts outside the entrance to the shrine, but inside the mosque is shaped like a synagogue, with old wooden cabinets that used to hold Torah scrolls and balustrades that once separated men and women.

Inside the shrine, block-like Hebrew script runs along the old stone walls beneath a Turkish-style dome with medieval Islamic floral designs.

The government has launched a project to renovate the interior of the shrine, and the state ministry for tourism and antiquities says it hopes to eventually repair and renovate other Jewish sites across the country.

"The ministry is concerned with all Iraqi heritage, whether it is Christian or Jewish or from any other religion," ministry spokesman Abdelzahra al-Talaqani told AFP.

"The present plans do not include the synagogues in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah and other places because of lack of funding, but I think they will be included in future plans."

The ministry is concerned with all Iraqi heritage, whether it is Christian or Jewish or from any other religion

Tourism Ministery Abdelzahra al-Talaqani

No religious conflict was in Babylon

Falah Abdelhadi, who is overseeing the renovation of the shrine of Ezekiel, hopes it will once again attract visitors of all faiths from around the world.

"There was never any religious conflict in Babylon," he said, referring to the remains of the ancient city a few kilometers (miles) away. "Everyone loved the Iraqi Jews dearly, and these people were Iraqi in every way."

Muslims revere nearly all the central religious figures from Judaism and Christianity, including Ezekiel. He is referred to as Dhu al-Kifl in two Koranic verses and is said to have raised the dead.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish pilgrims in the Middle East have for centuries travelled long distances to visit each other's shrines to pray for health, well-being and fertility, a custom that goes back to pagan times.

In the southern town of Al-Azair, Bashir Zaalan, a Shiite Muslim, cares for the shrine of Ezra, the towering scholar of Jewish law said to have led several hundred Israelites back to Jerusalem in the 5th century BC.

"We do not differentiate between any prophets, whether Israelite or Christian," he said. "The prophet Ezra was from the sons of Israel but the Muslims visit this shrine just as they visit other shrines."

In the northern town of Kirkuk, Jews would hike up the city’s 4,600-year-old citadel to seek blessings at the—likely apocryphal—tomb of the prophet Daniel, now a Muslim shrine decked with green banners.

"Muslims, Christians and Jews used to visit here. They always came on Saturday, even the Muslims, because these are Jewish prophets," said Ayad Tariq Hussein, a Turkmen Muslim who is the city’s director of antiquities.

"Everyone got along. We missed them when they left," said Ghazi Mohammed Salih, a 66-year-old pharmacist whose family has held the keys to the Kirkuk citadel for more than 1,400 years.

"My father used to talk about the Jewish mukhtar (community leader) Shlomi, who came with his people every Saturday to make a donation to the shrine," he said. "We all loved each other like brothers."

Baghdad as a "Jewish City"

"It has often been said that New York is a Jewish city. I think one can safely say the same about Baghdad of the first half of the 20th century," writes Nissim Rejwan, an Iraqi Jew who fled in 1948 at the age of 26.

In his memoir Rejwan, now living in Jerusalem, describes how Baghdad’s markets would shut down on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest.

"The difference between the kind of world in which I was born in Baghdad of the mid-1920s and that in which I attained my maturity in the late 1940s—not to mention the world in which we live now—was so great it would strain the imagination just to try to grasp it," he writes.

Prior to the exodus in 1948, Jews made up around a third of Baghdad’s population and played a major role in the political, economic, and cultural life of the country. Today the population has dwindled to single digits.

Their troubles began in the early 1930s, with the rise and gradual radicalization of Arab nationalism and the simultaneous arrival of Zionism, with emissaries mobilizing Jewish youth and urging emigration to Palestine.

The process culminated with the birth of Israel in 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, which flew more than 120,000 Jews –96 percent of Iraq's Jewish population—to Israel in 1951.

It has often been said that New York is a Jewish city. I think one can safely say the same about Baghdad of the first half of the 20th century

Nissim Rejwan, an Iraqi Jew

"If you asked the Jewish community in 1948 how many wanted to move to Israel, I would say about 20-30,000 would have said yes," said Moshe Gat, an Iraqi-born history professor living in Tel Aviv.

"But because of the war in Palestine, the Iraqi persecution and the Israeli emissary activities, it altogether pushed the Jews to leave the country. You cannot say there was only one reason."

For the few Jews who remained in Iraq, conditions grew worse and worse over the following decades as the Arab-Israeli conflict festered and Iraq weathered political upheaval, wars and international sanctions.

In the violence that erupted after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Iraq's few remaining Jews went into hiding as sectarian militias marauded across the country, slaughtering Muslim rivals as well as Christians and other minorities.

But in the face of the reduced bloodshed of the past two years, the government has started to take a new look at the country's many cultural treasures and their potential as a lure for tourists.

Few in Iraq today are old enough to remember the Jewish community, and the Middle East conflict weighs heavily on its mostly Arab population.

But the faithful from three religions may soon make their way again to the Kifl shrine, near which Ezekiel is said to have walked through a valley of dry bones and seen God lift them up and clothe them with flesh.

"Iraq should be a tourist destination. If any delegation comes with permission from the government they are most welcome," Abdelhadi said with a smile. "As long as they are only coming to visit."

But because of the war in Palestine, the Iraqi persecution and the Israeli emissary activities, it altogether pushed the Jews to leave the country. You cannot say there was only one reason

Moshe Gat, an Iraqi-born history professor living in Tel Aviv