‘Where Are the Jews?’: As Pope Visits Birthplace of Abraham, Chronicler of Mosul Calls for ‘Recognition’ of Jewish Heritage

The remains of a synagogue are seen in the center of Baghdad, Iraq April 6, 2018. Picture taken April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm Al-Okili

On Friday, Pope Francis began an historic three-day visit to Iraq, his first foreign trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and a gesture of support to the country’s fraught Christian communities. 

In Mosul, once a flourishing multi-faith metropolis, the Pope will visit churches ravaged by the Islamic State, which occupied the city from 2014 to 2017 and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents. 

Omar Mohammed — an historian who was an essential chronicler of the occupation through his anonymous website “Mosul Eye” — told The Algemeiner that the visit would be a sign of encouragement to the handful of Christian families still living there. 

“The pope — the highest authority in the Catholic Church — will pray inside Mosul; not from Rome praying for them, he will be among them,” said Mohammed, in an interview Thursday. 

But he also hoped that the pope visit would pressure the Iraqi government to do more to recognize and protect Iraq’s non-Muslim heritage — including its once-thriving Jewish community, which has been all but stamped out. 

“When I speak about the constitution of Iraq, there is almost no recognition of the non-Muslim societies,” he said, noting that the country’s laws are founded in Islamic practice. “This is completely against the meaning of diversity and inclusion. How could you possibly want the Yazidis and the Christians to accept to be living under a constitution that doesn’t recognize them?” 

Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul has historically been home to populations of Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Circassians and other communities, in addition to the Sunni majority. After the Islamic State overtook the city in 2014, Mohammed was one of the few able to tell the world about the group’s atrocities, publishing work that was critical for journalists and international organizations. 

The Jewish community in Iraq dates back over 2,500 years, and numbered over 150,000 in 1947. Anti-Jewish riots and persecution drove many to flee their homes after the establishment of Israel, with over 120,000 emigrating to the Jewish state in the early 1950s. 

Mohammed, who now teaches as Sciences Po University in Paris, says he is working on raising awareness about the Jewish community in Mosul, including projects like the translation of an 1837 population registry that included the city’s Jews. He has called for the Iraqi government to do more to recognize their stories, including by amending the constitution and admitting that persecution had taken place. 

“Can the Iraqi government discuss the confiscated properties of the Jews who were deported from Iraq?” he said. “Can we think about just telling them that we acknowledge that this happened to you? This this could be a good step if the Iraqi government would say there was also a Holocaust against the Jews in Iraq, not only in Germany.”

On Saturday, Pope Francis will pray at the ancient city of Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham and held as a symbol of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While recognizing the pontiff’s good intentions, Mohammed said a visit was not enough. 

“Where are the Jews? They are not here,” he told The Algemeiner. “You are speaking about diversity, but this is not complete, the picture is not complete.” 

“Without recognizing the Jewish history of Iraq, without recognizing the Jewish part of Iraq, without recognizing the Jewish contributions to Iraq from thousands of years ago until now … there will be no real diversity or inclusion at all. And this prayer will have no meaning at all,” Mohammed said. 

Noting a recent bill in Iraq’s parliament that could criminalize activities related to Jewish culture as a possible step toward normalization with Israel, the scholar was not sanguine about the government soon heeding his calls for inclusion. 

But he found hope during a recent online event he organized — one that brought Mosuli Jews in conversation with residents actually living in the city today. 

“The people now are seeking more information about the Jewish population in Iraq and about their past in Iraq, especially in Mosul,” he said. “I believe the young generation is what makes me optimistic.”

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Author: Yoni Wilkenfeld

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