AL-QOSH, Iraq — In the glow of the nine-candled menorah, with kippa skullcaps on their heads and tallit prayer shawls around their shoulders, a small association is working to revive Hanukkah in Iraq.
The country has been nearly emptied of its Jewish community amid regional conflicts and violence within its borders, but this year, the town of Al-Qosh hosted its first Hanukkah celebrations.
The Jewish “festival of lights” commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC.
Al-Qosh is a majority Christian town around 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Mosul, the former self-proclaimed “capital” of the Islamic State group (IS) in Iraq.
On Sunday, around 20 people gathered in the small town where it is believed the prophet Nahum, whose words are recorded in the Old Testament, is buried.
Some had traveled from Israel, but the majority came from the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan to come together to light the Hanukkah candles, which celebrate the miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days.
“It’s the first time we are celebrating Hanukkah in Iraqi Kurdistan,” one of the organizers, Ranj Cohen, told AFP.
Cohen, an Iraqi Kurd, registered his association with the authorities and awaits the renovation of the prophet Nahum’s tomb so as to hold services there on Saturdays.
The restoration of the tomb of the prophet Nahum started almost three years ago with a US grant of $1 million as well as funding from the Kurdistan Regional Government, and private donors.
It is being implemented as a partnership between the US-based non-profit ARCH International and Czech company GEMA Art International, and is due to be completed by May.
For the time being, the small congregation distributes sweets and chocolate-iced cakes as they hope for better days in Iraq, and especially in Kurdistan.
In 2015, when IS still occupied a third of Iraq and the territory of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” bordered the majority-Muslim autonomous region, the Kurdish authorities appointed a representative of the Jewish community to their ministry of religious affairs.
The decision was taken in an effort to revive a community that counted just eight members in the capital Baghdad in 2009, according to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are around 400 families of Jewish descent who converted to Islam and therefore are officially registered as Muslims, according to authorities.
In 1948, there were about 150,000 Jews in Iraq, a community that had lived there for more than 2,000 years.
But the vast majority left after the creation of Israel that year.
In 1951, 120,000 Jews, around 96 percent of the Iraqi Jewish community, emigrated to the Jewish state.
The rest followed after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which paved the way for 15 years of almost uninterrupted violence.