The American-backed Iraqi government has announced plans to restore the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, in a small town south of Baghdad.
It is currently an Islamic shrine, but the government announcement implied that its Jewish nature would be emphasized. The interior is shaped like a synagogue, with a Turkish-style dome ceiling, old wooden cabinets that used to hold Torah scrolls, and the remains of a separation between men and women. Large Hebrew letters praising the Prophet and medieval Islamic floral designs adorn the old stone walls.
"The ministry is concerned with all Iraqi heritage, whether it is Christian or Jewish or from any other religion," a Tourism Ministry spokesman said at the end of last week. He noted that the restoration plans do not currently include the preservation of synagogues in Baghdad, Basra, Fallujah, and elsewhere in Iraq, because of insufficient funds. This is likely to be rectified in the future, he said.
Ezekiel, whose original Hebrew name is Yechezkel, lived in the sixth century BCE, having accompanied the exiled Judeans to Babylon. His prophecies include the Vision of the Dry Bones, as well as the return of Jewish People to the Land of Israel even if they might not be deserving (36,22-25).
The Diaspora of Iraq was one of the most ancient and important of the Jewish people. The Jews came to Babylon when the First Temple was destroyed, over 2,500 years ago. Their Torah teachings became, around 1,500 years ago, the all-important Babylonian Talmud, which remains the backbone of Jewish Law throughout the world even today.
Over the centuries, the Jewish community there dwindled, until it all but disappeared between 1848 and 1951. With the rise of violent anti-Semitism in the country at that time, nearly the entire Jewish community in the country fled to Israel. In what began as the clandestine Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, but ended with official Iraqi government participation, some 120,000 Jews came to Israel. Many thousands of them were forbidden to take their property with them, and arrived as paupers. In addition, a few thousand Jews left for other countries, and about 6,000 remained in Iraq; the latter number is estimated to have dropped to a handful today.
Iraq's Muslims and Christians still visit Jewish holy sites such as Ezekiel’s tomb, as well as those of the prophets Daniel, Ezra, Nahum and Jonah.