The Iraqi government ignored the history of Iraqi Jews during the visit of Pope Francis last week, marring an otherwise unprecedented visit and wasting an opportunity to highlight the Jewish part of Iraq's history.
The Vatican hoped that Jews would be part of the events attended by Pope Francis in Iraq, with Vatican News even noting that the pope met "representatives of the three Abrahamic religions at Ur of the Chaldeans in Iraq and urges Christians, Muslims and Jews to journey along a path of peace under the stars of the promise God made to Abraham." However, a public delegation of Jews was not able to attend the event.
Iraqi-born Edwin Shuker, who visits Baghdad regularly, expressed disappointment that the Iraqi government "wasted a historic opportunity to reconcile with its Jews by inviting them to attend the ceremony at Ur and use the occasion to recognize and correct the injustice committed against them by successive governments."
The pope's message was given and stood in contrast to the stance of the Iraqi government. "As the children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers and all persons of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham," the pope prayed on Saturday.
However, the Iraqi government officials ignored the history of the Iraqi Jewish community. This was the case at Ur and also during the pope's subsequent trip to Mosul, where a Jewish community once thrived. At least half a dozen ancient synagogues have been uncovered in Mosul.
In comparison, the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq has tended to embrace the diversity of the country, including the Jewish history of the area.
The Vatican sought to include Jews not only in the prayer but also physically at the interfaith meetings. It appears that the Iraqi government stymied efforts for any Jews to travel to Iraq, according to a knowledgeable source. The pope has often called for interfaith unity and has sent Hanukkah greetings. He also wrote a book with Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka when he was Cardinal in Buenos Aires.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that Jews would attend events in Iraq but said he didn't know if any rabbis would take part, according to The New York Times. Omar Mohammed, the historian behind the blog Mosul Eye, also told The Algemeiner Journal that the absence of Jews harmed the image of diversity. "Where are the Jews? They are not here," he said.
"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," he said. The pope went to Mosul on Sunday and went to the Kurdistan region.
There are just a handful of Jews left in Iraq. In 2008, there were not enough men to form a minyan in Baghdad, where once hundreds of thousands of Jews had lived. Jewish sites in the country have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed.
Sources say that in recent years, lands that once belonged to the Jewish community have been transferred to Shi'ite religious control. This has been the case in the struggle, for example, over the Tomb of the prophet Ezekiel.
One exception is the Tomb of the Prophet Nahum in Al-Qosh. A shrine has been rehabilitated that has significance to the Jewish community, as well as Muslims and Christians in the town.
Iraqi politicians linked to Iran regularly spread conspiracies about Israel. They have worked to make promoting normalization illegal since the Abraham Accords this past summer.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.