Kurdistan holds first Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony

Many of the 500,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide suffer from poverty and need urgent help to live a dignified life in their last years, an advisor to the US secretary of state said on May 27, 2015
Mehdi Fedouach (AFP/File)
Many who converted to Islam to stay in Kurdish region of Iraq are opening up about their Jewish ancestry

Kurds with Jewish roots together with Kurdish officials and foreign dignitaries held a historic Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region north of Baghdad. 

Organized and led by the Jewish representative in the Kurdistan Ministry of Religion, Sherzad Mamsani, the ceremony marked the first Jewish Remembrance Day for Victims of the Holocaust in Kurdistan, the Kurdish Rudaw news website reported. 

The ceremony, protected by guards, was held in the garden of the office of the Representation of Kurdish Jews in Erbil, where a small exhibition displayed pictures of Nazi persecution of the Jews. 

For the first time in decades, Rudaw reports, Jews openly wore yarmulkes (kippahs). 

A minute of silence was observed in remembrance of the victims, and the ceremony ended with the lighting of six candles -- one for every million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Speakers also made mention of other modern genocides, including the Anfal operation in the 1980's, during which former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed around 180,000 Kurds, and the recent killings of thousands of Yezidi Christians by the Islamic State. 

Representatives of the US, French, and Russian colsulates in Erbil, as well as from the Assyrian and Armenian churches in the autonomous Kurdish region, praised the initiative. 

"It is important for all to recognize what happened, in order for us never to forget," Rudaw quotes American Deputy Consul General Roy Perrin.

Perrin also praised the Kurdish government for its defense of the Jewish religion and for recognizing "how much it is part of the history of Iraq."

The majority of the nearly 150,000 Jews have fled Iraq since the founding of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948. However, Rudaw reports, hundreds in the Kurdish region of Iraq chose to convert to Islam to be able to stay.

Since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, many have begun to open up about their Jewish ancestry. 

Rudaw says while the exact number of Jewish descendents living in the Kurdish region is unknown, it is estimated to be in the thousands.

Mariwan Naqshbandi, the head of the Department for Religious Coexistence in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region said it was the Kurds' "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.”

According to Rudaw, some internet polls show that a majority of Kurds support the revitalization of the Jewish community in the region, despite some radical Muslims having expressed their opposition.

Most of the local Jewish heritage has been destroyed, including all synagogues, and Naqshbandi said his office would one day open a new temple for the communtity.

Mamsani acknowledges, however, that with the Islamic State operating in large swaths of Iraqi territory, it could be potentially dangerous to consider opening a synagogue any time soon.

"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," Mamsani said. "Daesh is still next door, and we do not know in the long run what will come after," he continued, using an alternate name for IS.

Nonetheless, Naqshbandi promised that the Kurds would continue to protect its Jewish population, saying: “We protect the Jews and other regions here in Kurdistan. That is exactly what our Peshmerga troops fight Daesh for.”

First, Mamsani says, his Ministry will establish a Jewish cultural center where people can learn about Judaism in a safe environment.

“It will be open to all; both Christian and Muslim children can come to learn - and not to convert,” Mamsani said. “We mainly want to change the image in the minds of the Kurdish people about the Jews.”

(Staff with agencies)

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