The ruins Mosul’s Nabi Younis Mosque, believed to be the tomb of Jonah, pictured on the day the site was retaken by Iraqi forces. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq was once home to a vibrant Jewish community and many Jewish sites are found in the city of Mosul. What happened to these sites under ISIS is yet to be known, but an American rabbi who has spent time in Mosul is praying that these sites that reflect Iraq’s diverse history can be saved.
On Monday, Iraqi forces battling to retake Mosul liberated the tomb of the prophet Jonah, the Nabi Younis Mosque, which was first built as a synagogue and then was an Assyrian church before being converted into the mosque.
Jonah, who preached to the people of Nineveh, present day Mosul, after spending three days in the belly of a whale for disobeying God’s command, is an important prophet in all three Abrahamic religions and the people of Mosul valued and protected the site of his tomb for generations. Until that is, ISIS militants blew it up on July 24, 2014 as part of their campaign to destroy sites they deemed idolatrous.
When a Rudaw TV crew entered the site
the day Iraqi forces took control of it, they found only ruins.
The Jewish history of the site was recounted to Rabbi Carlos C. Huerta, a retired US army chaplain, when he was based in Mosul in 2003 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.
“I was told by an old Christian… that before it was a Mosque it was a Synagogue,” Huerta recounted to Rudaw English via email.
“He told me that the Jews recognized it as the place where the Prophet Jonah was buried. They built a synagogue around his grave as in the Jewish tradition, like the Christian, honoring the dead with a place of worship was considered important both to keep the memory of the righteous alive but to also inspire the living to continue their mission of justice and righteousness. When Islam came to Iraq, as the Prophet Jonah is mentioned in the Holy Qur'an, they felt that they should appropriate the Synagogue as he was an important Prophet for them.”
Rabbi Carlos C. Huerta, centre, in front of the Nabi Younis Mosque in 2003. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Carlos C. Huerta
Huerta was the first rabbi in some 50 years to read the story of Jonah to his congregation of soldiers in the place where the tale had played out and is grateful for the care the people of Mosul took of his tomb.
“I wish I could tell you the pride that the Mosulawi had for the Masjid Yunus. It was always well kept, well watched, well used, well decorated, and well advertised as one of the must see places for tourist.”
There was once a sizeable Jewish population Iraq before most were evacuated to Israel in the 1950s and 60s. More than 120,000 Jews were airlifted out of Iraq in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, bringing an end to an ancient Jewish community.
The evacuation took place because of increasing violence and discrimination against Jews following the founding of the state of Israel. An estimated just 6,000 remained in Iraq.
Huerta, from his research, estimated that one hundred years ago, Mosul’s population was 15-25 percent Jewish, 20-30 percent Christian, and the remaining a mix of Islamic faiths. “All these people managed to live and work together, not all the time in harmony but they learned to put away any petty differences for the major good,” he said.
He theorized that the disintegration of relations between the various faiths began when Jews were forced to leave. The Jews were targeted first, then Christians and Yezidis were ISIS’ first victims, followed by moderate Muslims, Huerta said. “This slippery slope of destruction of Mosul really started when the Jews were forced to leave.”
When the rabbi was in Mosul he spoke with older generations, both Muslims and Christians, who remembered when Jews lived in the city. “They said that the city was better off when all of G-d’s people were represented.”
Even before ISIS arrived, Mosul’s Jewish history was neglected. Huerta was able to explore the city during his time there and discovered five ancient Jewish synagogues, “all destroyed, some being used as garbage dumps.”
An ancient Jewish synagogue in Mosul being used as a garbage dump in 2003. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Carlos C. Huerta
Sherzad Mamsani, the Jewish affairs representative to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), confirmed that Jewish historical sites in areas under Iraqi control are in terrible condition. “I can say about 60% of them have been turned into garbage areas.”
He is worried about the sites, pointing out that they will not have fared will under ISIS. "We see that ISIS is destroying a Sunni mosque. Imagine what they will do to our sites – certainly much worse.”
Mamsani said that the Jews are one of the country’s minority groups that has suffered the most and accused the Iraqi government of not taking care of Jewish historical sites.
The Kurdistan Region also has a rich Jewish history and sites that need preserving though they are treated with more respect than in Iraq, according to Mamsani. "In the Kurdistan Region, no Jewish site has been looted, burned or disrespected. The sites have been dealt with respect.”
He explained that the KRG would like to help the Jewish community but, for now, are constrained financially. The region is in the third year of an economic crisis and the government is operating under austerity measures.
Huerta is praying that not all the relics and sites will be destroyed, and that Iraqis will be able to preserve what is important Iraqi and human history.
“Iraq has so much to offer to the world because of its ancient culture. But make no mistake that this ancient culture was the product of many, many ancient peoples. Music, for instance, was greatly enriched by Jewish and Kurdish, musicians and composers. One of the great Iraqi female singers was Salima Pasha. Many of the great Iraqi composers were Kurdish. It is this diversity that made Iraq so valuable and unique. I can only pray that it embraces the diversity that made it great. If it does, it will rise out of the ashes and take its place as a great nation.”