Cover Story

The edge of extinction

"The edge of extinction" Continued...

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

When White first moved to Baghdad he lived in a trailer not far from the church in the U.S.-protected Green Zone. “In the old days I used to walk down here in the evening. Now, you cannot walk the streets.”

Common cause

Iraq’s Jewish remnant finds refuge among Baghdad’s Christians

Associated Press/Photo by Hadi Mizban

The British opened St. George’s in 1936 as a memorial to the British dead of the Mesopotamia campaign of World War I. Iraq by then had become an independent state, but remained heavily dependent on the British and would be reoccupied by them during World War II. 

In that period came a form of emancipation for Iraq’s Christians and Jews, who for the first time since Ottoman rule, which began in the 1500s, became full citizens alongside Muslims. The British abolished their dhimmi status, and King Faisal I, the country’s ruler from 1921 to 1933, declared: “There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims and Christians in the terminology of patriotism, there is simply a country called Iraq and all are Iraqis.”

Each Sunday St. George’s filled with Anglican believers from the Commonwealth stationed in Iraq. Christians comprised nearly one-fifth of the city population. At the same time, Jews made up one-third of Baghdad’s population (about 120,000). Iraq’s first minister of finance was Jewish, and Hebrew was listed as one of the country’s official languages. But winds of dark change were blowing—chiefly, rising Arab nationalism and toxic Nazi sympathies. 

With the end of World War II and the creation of a modern Jewish state in Israel, Iraq’s Jewish community, once the largest and most prosperous ethnic group in Iraq, was targeted for extinction. Jews were forced out—or crushed, their business and property confiscated, and many killed. 

By 2004 only 35 Jews lived in Baghdad and the city’s remaining synagogue was shuttered. Ten years later in Baghdad there are six Jews. They live scattered throughout the city and are discreet about their identity. Baghdad’s Christian residents take the decline of the Jews to heart, as they’ve watched their own numbers halved since the start of the 2003 war. St. George’s Church supports the remaining Jews, and Canon Andrew White makes regular visits with them. —M.B.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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