Holocaust remembered in Kurdistan

During the ceremony, for the first time since decades Jews were openly wearing their yarmulke (kippah) in Kurdistan.

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ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - In a historic ceremony in the Kurdistan capital Erbil, Kurds with Jewish roots together with Kurdish officials and foreign dignitaries remembered for the first time in the Kurdistan Region the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. The first Jewish Remembrance Day for Victims of the Holocaust in Kurdistan was organised by the Jewish representative in the Kurdistan Ministry of Religion, Sherzad Mamsani, who also led the ceremony. The event ended with the lighting of six candles, one for every million Jews killed by the Nazi regime in the 30s and 40s of the last century. A minute of silence was also observed. During the ceremony, speakers also referred to more recent genocides, like the Anfal-operation in which the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein killed about 180,000 Kurds in the 1980s, and the very recent killing and kidnapping of thousands of Yezidis by the Islamic State (ISIS). Representatives of the American, French and Russian consulates in Erbil, as well as of Assyrian and Armenian churches in the region spoke highly of the initiative to organise a special ceremony in the Kurdistan Region in remembrance of the Holocaust. “It is very important to remember the victims of the Holocaust so it never occurs again,” said the American Deputy Consul General Roy Perrin. “It is important for all to recognise what happened, in order for us never to forget.” At the office of the Representation of Kurdish Jews in Erbil where the ceremony took place in the garden a small exhibition was run of pictures of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Perrin praised the Kurdistan government for defending the Jewish religion and recognising “how much it is part of the history of Iraq.” Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, most of the nearly 150,000 Jews fled from Iraq, yet in the Kurdistan Region hundreds chose to convert to Islam to be able to stay. Since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, many of their children and grandchildren have started opening up about their roots, whilst negative feelings about Islam generated by the atrocities committed by ISIS stimulated this development. During the ceremony, for the first time since decades Jews were openly wearing their yarmulke (kippah) in Kurdistan. Mariwan Naqshbandi, the head of the Department for Religious Coexistence in Kurdistan, called it “our duty to support the Jewish religion. When you look at the towns as well the villages in Kurdistan, you see many Jewish families have survived.” The total number of Jewish descendants living in the Kurdistan Region, who are locally called Benjews, is not known, but runs in the thousands. As most of their cultural heritage was destroyed since the fifties, they have no synagogue left. One of the duties of his office to offer the community a temple for prayer again, Naqshbandi said. “The community will get to bloom again when we open one,” he predicted. The ceremony was well protected, with guards outside and within the walls, as some radical Muslims in Kurdistan are known to be not happy about the recurrence of a Jewish community. At the same time, some internet polls have shown that the big majority of the Kurds are in favour of it. For safety reasons, the policy of the Jewish representative Mamsani is to delay the opening of a synagogue, and to first set up a cultural centre where people can learn about Jews and Judaism. “It will be open to all; both Christian and Muslim children can come to learn - and not to convert,” he stressed. “We mainly want to change the image in the minds of the Kurdish people about the Jews.” The centre will also have its own rabbi, and help Benjews to reconnect with the faith again that they mostly were not taught about by their parents or grandparents. Only a small minority did teach the Jewish prayers and rituals to their offspring. Until the mood towards Jews has changed enough, Mamsani does not want to endanger any lives by opening a synagogue in Kurdistan. “It has been seventy years that Jews were praying secretly in their homes. The lives of our people are more important than having a synagogue.” He points to the fact that ISIS, or Daesh, is still active. “Daesh is still next door, and we do not know in the long run what will come after.” Yet Naqshbandi promised protection: “We protect the Jews and other regions here in Kurdistan. That is exactly what our Peshmerga troops fight Daesh for.”

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