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interview with me:[edit]

'I am a Kurd and a Jew': an interview with Sherzad Mamsani[edit]

Erbil, kurdistan

May 12, 2016 / 05:02 pm (CNA).-

Terrorist attacks don’t phase Sherzad Omar Mamsani, even when an attack claimed one of his arms and left shrapnel throughout his legs. There’s a reason he was a target: he is a Kurdish Jew.

“This is my calling. How can I run away from it? This is my history. This is my faith. This is not something I do just for a living. It is my life,” Mamsani told CNA .

Last year, Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government appointed Mamsani as the Jewish representative to the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.

“This position sends a message to the world. In a time of war between barbarism and humanity, all creeds and ethnicities are free and protected in Kurdistan,” he said.

“After more than 70 long years of suffering, hatred and exile, we now have the freedom to choose and declare our faith and to live it openly,” Mamsani added. “I am so happy and thankful to God and to the government.”

Mamsani has survived three terrorist attacks. He is still hunted for being unabashed about his heritage. Born in 1976 in Iraqi Kurdistan to a Jewish mother and Kurdish Muslim father, he believes his birthright is something of which to be proud.

In 1997, Mamsani was inspired to write a book that explored Kurdish-Jewish relations. Its publication spurred death threats and subsequent attacks. He eventually wrote another book on the rise of Islamic extremism in Iraq.

“I am a Kurd and a Jew. This is who I am,” he exclaimed. “I should not be forced to hide who I am or feel ashamed for my beliefs. I proudly stand with my fellow community members.”

In the 1940s, Iraqi Jews began experiencing high levels of discrimination and violence. This persecution prompted the exodus of approximately 130,000 Iraqi Jews, who fled to Israel between 1950 and 1952. The following year, Jewish emigration was banned.

Although some claim there are no longer any Jews in the region, Mamsani is proof to the contrary.

“Many people claim that there aren’t any Jews in Kurdistan. These people don’t live in Kurdistan. They left a long time ago and don’t know the current situation,” he said. “My family and I are here and there are 40 to 50 other Jewish families with us who are committed to practicing their faith.”

“But I believe there are hundreds more. Many are in hiding and afraid to come out,” Mamsani added. “I am confident that in the future, they will feel safe enough to join our group.”

Religious freedom advocate Tina Ramirez said Masmani is an inspiration to religious minorities.

“Sherzad gives a lot of people hope,” she told CNA. “If a Jewish person can have this kind of position in the Middle East and is willing to risk his life against terrorists and stand for the freedom of people of his faith, then there is nothing anyone can’t do.”

Ramirez is CEO of Hardwired Global, an NGO that trains local leaders around the world to defend religious freedom for themselves and others.

“It has been so hopeless for so many minorities for so long that I think Sherzad’s courage and work gives them hope that they have a future,” she added.

Since assuming his position, Mamsani has already made headway in advancing his cause.

“In the last year or so, we have made great progress,” he said. “We are already seeing that the preconceived negative image Muslims and other religious minorities have of Jewish Kurds is changing. They are seeing that the hatred they were told to have towards us is unjustified and we are beginning to see a whole new mindset towards us.”

“Also, for the first time, Jewish Kurds are now living freely with other religious minorities,” he said with pride. “This is a great accomplishment.”

In April 2015, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government passed the Law of Minorities, which gives every religious community in the region the right to establish a representation office in the government and to practice their religion freely.

The Iraqi Kurdistan government now officially represents eight religious communities: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis, Baha’is, and Mandaeans

Mariwan Naqshbandi, official spokesperson of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, spearheaded the religious freedom law.

“I have seen countries with people of diverse and numerous faiths and they live in harmony,” Naqshbandi told CNA. “This is what inspired me to write the law and help get it passed.”

“As a Muslim working in religious affairs, I know the history of our people and our rich culture which has many other religions. The right to worship is a freedom everyone should have,” Naqshbandi emphasized.

Ramirez encouraged the American people to not give up on their efforts in Iraq.

“The U.S. has invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears in Iraq. At this point in time, we have a real opportunity to encourage the government to make religious freedom a priority,” Ramirez said. “We often forget that the history of Jews is intertwined with Christianity. We need to value this history and defend all communities struggling to survive.”

Mamsani said there is still a lot of work left to be done, but is undeterred.

“We need your help to support our government and the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. Help us to stand for our human rights,” he pleaded. “I have my faith and I will continue to fight for my beliefs. Religious freedom is worth fighting for.”

Holocaust remembered in Kurdistan for the first time[edit]

By Judit Neurink 7/5/2016

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - In a historic ceremony in the Kurdistan capital Erbil, Kurds with Jewish roots together with Kurdish officials and foreign dignitaries remembered for the first time in the Kurdistan Region the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

The first Jewish Remembrance Day for Victims of the Holocaust in Kurdistan was organised by the Jewish representative in the Kurdistan Ministry of Religion, Sherzad Mamsani, who also led the ceremony.

The event ended with the lighting of six candles, one for every million Jews killed by the Nazi regime in the 30s and 40s of the last century. A minute of silence was also observed.

During the ceremony, speakers also referred to more recent genocides, like the Anfal-operation in which the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein killed about 180,000 Kurds in the 1980s, and the very recent killing and kidnapping of thousands of Yezidis by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Representatives of the American, French and Russian consulates in Erbil, as well as of Assyrian and Armenian churches in the region spoke highly of the initiative to organise a special ceremony in the Kurdistan Region in remembrance of the Holocaust.

“It is very important to remember the victims of the Holocaust so it never occurs again,” said the American Deputy Consul General Roy Perrin. “It is important for all to recognise what happened, in order for us never to forget.”

At the office of the Representation of Kurdish Jews in Erbil where the ceremony took place in the garden a small exhibition was run of pictures of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Perrin praised the Kurdistan government for defending the Jewish religion and recognising “how much it is part of the history of Iraq.”

Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, most of the nearly 150,000 Jews fled from Iraq, yet in the Kurdistan Region hundreds chose to convert to Islam to be able to stay.

Since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, many of their children and grandchildren have started opening up about their roots, whilst negative feelings about Islam generated by the atrocities committed by ISIS stimulated this development.

During the ceremony, for the first time since decades Jews were openly wearing their yarmulke (kippah) in Kurdistan. 

Mariwan Naqshbandi, the head of the Department for Religious Coexistence in Kurdistan, called it “our duty to support the Jewish religion. When you look at the towns as well the villages in Kurdistan, you see many Jewish families have survived.”

The total number of Jewish descendants living in the Kurdistan Region, who are locally called Benjews, is not known, but runs in the thousands.

As most of their cultural heritage was destroyed since the fifties, they have no synagogue left. One of the duties of his office to offer the community a temple for prayer again, Naqshbandi said.

“The community will get to bloom again when we open one,” he predicted.

The ceremony was well protected, with guards outside and within the walls, as some radical Muslims in Kurdistan are known to be not happy about the recurrence of a Jewish community. At the same time, some internet polls have shown that the big majority of the Kurds are in favour of it.

For safety reasons, the policy of the Jewish representative Mamsani is to delay the opening of a synagogue, and to first set up a cultural centre where people can learn about Jews and Judaism.

“It will be open to all; both Christian and Muslim children can come to learn - and not to convert,” he stressed. “We mainly want to change the image in the minds of the Kurdish people about the Jews.”

The centre will also have its own rabbi, and help Benjews to reconnect with the faith again that they mostly were not taught about by their parents or grandparents. Only a small minority did teach the Jewish prayers and rituals to their offspring.

Until the mood towards Jews has changed enough, Mamsani does not want to endanger any lives by opening a synagogue in Kurdistan. “It has been seventy years that Jews were praying secretly in their homes. The lives of our people are more important than having a synagogue.”

He points to the fact that ISIS, or Daesh, is still active. “Daesh is still next door, and we do not know in the long run what will come after.”

Yet Naqshbandi promised protection: “We protect the Jews and other regions here in Kurdistan. That is exactly what our Peshmerga troops fight Daesh for.”

In midst of war against ISIS, Iraqi Kurds Commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day for the First Time[edit]

Sherzad Mamsani, Jewish Affairs Representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government, lights a candle at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Iraq. Photo courtesy of Sherzad Omer Mamsani

On May 6th, officials of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day. The ceremony was the first official commemoration of the Holocaust in Iraqi history and featured speeches by Nevzat Hadi, Mayor of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region and Mariwan Naqshbandi, the head of the Kurdistan regional government's department for religious coexistence. The ceremony came as Kurdish forces and their Iraqi Army allies were engaged in fierce fighting against ISIS in the northern Nineveh Province.

The ceremony was organized by Sherzad Omer Mamsani, the Jewish affairs representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government and took place at his office, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Mamsani spearheaded the passage of a 2014 law which established representative offices for minority faiths in the region and formerly offered restitution of properties to religious and other minorities who had left Iraqi Kurdistan, including the thousands of Kurdish Jews who left Iraqi Kurdistan after the creation of state of Israel.

Mamsani believes thousands of people with Jewish heritage still live in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an interview with Fox News, he said, "The number of known Jews or families with Jewish heritage grows as we discover individuals who have been quiet for decades, or as some Kurdish and Iraqi Jews return from the diaspora for long-term business.” Naqshbandi, according to Kurdish news portal Rudaw, said it was “our duty to support the Jewish religion. When you look at the towns as well the villages in Kurdistan, you see many Jewish families have survived." Mamsani plans to open a cultural center affairs center where Kurds of all religious backgrounds can learn about Judaism and Jews.

Remembrance of the Holocaust has special resonance to Kurds. According to Human Rights Watch, from 1987-1989, the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein committed genocide when the regime “engaged in a campaign of extermination against the Kurds of Northern Iraq” it called the Anfal campaign. On March 16th, 1988 5,000 civilians, including women and children were murdered in Halabja by Iraqi forces using mustard gas and nerve agents. In total, as many as 182,000 Kurdish civilians were murdered according to the Kurdistan Regional Government during the Anfal campaign. In 2009, in concert with the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center presented an exhibition at the United Nations on the Halabja massacre after a visit to Halabja in 2008 at the invitation of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and co-founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that Simon Wiesenthal himself had been one of the first to call attention to the genocide of the Kurds. “If Saddam had been stopped then it would be a totally different planet today.” Cooper said. Cooper cited Wiesenthal as saying, in reference to the genocide, “Tyrants will interpret the silence of the world in ways that we won’t expect.”

Amos Benyamin of Stevenson Ranch was born in Israel to Kurdish-Jewish parents from Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. His parents told him that Kurdish Jews were treated “beautifully” by their Muslim and Assyrian Christian neighbors. Benyamin said he found the news the Kurdistan Regional Government commemorated the Holocaust heartwarming, particularly in light of the widespread Holocaust denial in other Muslim countries. “In other Muslim countries, there is Holocaust denial and here we have, what we would say in Hebrew, 'Or b’Ktzeh Haminharah,' 'the light at the end of the tunnel.' To hear something like this coming from the government, in my opinion it’s a big thing," Benyamin said. "It’s beautiful."

Charlie Carnow is a Research Analyst for UNITE HERE Local 11 and a lover of the Talmud and language. All comments are his unless otherwise noted. You can reach him at @CCarnow.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/meeting_jews_is_easy/item/in_midst_of_war_against_isis_iraqi_kurds_commemorate_holocaust_memorial_day

<header>

Sherzad Mamsani says ‘I am a Kurd and a Jew’: interview[edit]

</header>Sherzad Omer Mamsani, representative of Kurdish Jews in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Photo: AFP

HEWLÊR-Erbil, Kurdistan region ‘Iraq’,— Terrorist attacks don’t phase Shêrzad Omar Mamsani, even when an attack claimed one of his arms and left shrapnel throughout his legs. There’s a reason he was a target: he is a Kurdish Jew.

“This is my calling. How can I run away from it? This is my history. This is my faith. This is not something I do just for a living. It is my life,” Mamsani told CNA .

Last year, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government appointed Mamsani as the Jewish representative to the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.

“This position sends a message to the world. In a time of war between barbarism and humanity, all creeds and ethnicities are free and protected in Kurdistan,” he said.

“After more than 70 long years of suffering, hatred and exile, we now have the freedom to choose and declare our faith and to live it openly,” Mamsani added. “I am so happy and thankful to God and to the government.”

Mamsani has survived three terrorist attacks. He is still hunted for being unabashed about his heritage. Born in 1976 in Iraqi Kurdistan to a Jewish mother and Kurdish Muslim father, he believes his birthright is something of which to be proud.

In 1997, Mamsani was inspired to write a book that explored Kurdish-Jewish relations. Its publication spurred death threats and subsequent attacks. He eventually wrote another book on the rise of Islamic extremism in Iraq.

“I am a Kurd and a Jew. This is who I am,” he exclaimed. “I should not be forced to hide who I am or feel ashamed for my beliefs. I proudly stand with my fellow community members.”

In the 1940s, Iraqi Jews began experiencing high levels of discrimination and violence. This persecution prompted the exodus of approximately 130,000 Iraqi Jews, who fled to Israel between 1950 and 1952. The following year, Jewish emigration was banned.

Although some claim there are no longer any Jews in the region, Mamsani is proof to the contrary.

“Many people claim that there aren’t any Jews in Kurdistan. These people don’t live in Kurdistan. They left a long time ago and don’t know the current situation,” he said. “My family and I are here and there are 40 to 50 other Jewish families with us who are committed to practicing their faith.”

“But I believe there are hundreds more. Many are in hiding and afraid to come out,” Mamsani added. “I am confident that in the future, they will feel safe enough to join our group.”

Religious freedom advocate Tina Ramirez said Masmani is an inspiration to religious minorities.

“Sherzad gives a lot of people hope,” she told CNA. “If a Jewish person can have this kind of position in the Middle East and is willing to risk his life against terrorists and stand for the freedom of people of his faith, then there is nothing anyone can’t do.”

Ramirez is CEO of Hardwired Global, an NGO that trains local leaders around the world to defend religious freedom for themselves and others.

“It has been so hopeless for so many minorities for so long that I think Sherzad’s courage and work gives them hope that they have a future,” she added.

Since assuming his position, Mamsani has already made headway in advancing his cause.

“In the last year or so, we have made great progress,” he said. “We are already seeing that the preconceived negative image Muslims and other religious minorities have of Jewish Kurds is changing. They are seeing that the hatred they were told to have towards us is unjustified and we are beginning to see a whole new mindset towards us.”

“Also, for the first time, Jewish Kurds are now living freely with other religious minorities,” he said with pride. “This is a great accomplishment.”

In April 2015, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government passed the Law of Minorities, which gives every religious community in the region the right to establish a representation office in the government and to practice their religion freely.

The Iraqi Kurdistan government now officially represents eight religious communities: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis, Baha’is, and Mandaeans

Mariwan Naqshbandi, official spokesperson of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, spearheaded the religious freedom law.

“I have seen countries with people of diverse and numerous faiths and they live in harmony,” Naqshbandi told CNA. “This is what inspired me to write the law and help get it passed.”

“As a Muslim working in religious affairs, I know the history of our people and our rich culture which has many other religions. The right to worship is a freedom everyone should have,” Naqshbandi emphasized.

Ramirez encouraged the American people to not give up on their efforts in Iraq.

“The U.S. has invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears in Iraq. At this point in time, we have a real opportunity to encourage the government to make religious freedom a priority,” Ramirez said. “We often forget that the history of Jews is intertwined with Christianity. We need to value this history and defend all communities struggling to survive.”

Mamsani said there is still a lot of work left to be done, but is undeterred.

“We need your help to support our government and the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. Help us to stand for our human rights,” he pleaded. “I have my faith and I will continue to fight for my beliefs. Religious freedom is worth fighting for.”