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On IS front line, Iraqi Christians left to care for abandoned synagogue

With the Jewish community of Iraq's al-Qosh long gone, it has fallen to local Christian families to care for the dilapidated synagogue
Hebrew inscriptions engraved in the interior walls of the synagogue (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

AL-QOSH, Iraq – A narrow doorway opens up into a courtyard. The path to the wooden door of the synagogue is overgrown with weeds and shrubs; its walls are crumbling and, in parts, completely fallen down.

The wooden door that leads into the synagogue is typically locked unless Nasir or his wife open the passage way to clean, or provide access to visitors (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

A red tin-roof and metal scaffolding hold the eroding structure in place. A barbed-wire fence covers holes in the walls to keep children and stray animals out, although it is easily passable for an adult.

“My father and my grandfather grew up with the Jewish people in this area,” Sami Nasir tells Middle East Eye.

Metal scaffolding has been erect in parts of the site in order to protect the crumbling building (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

Sami Nasir with two of his children, Sarah and Sami. Nasir has taken over from his father, who was entrusted to take care of the synagogue after the Jewish residents of the village left (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

Nestled between densely built Iraqi homes and the ancient Assyrian churches of al-Qosh, the 800-year-old synagogue, believed to be the burial place of the biblical prophet Nahum, lies in near-ruin.

Although the Jewish residents of al-Qosh are long gone, many having fled after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Nasir and his extended family have taken over the upkeep of the abandoned synagogue. They open the locked doors, sweep the floors and remove rubbish brought in from the wind or left by passing visitors without regard. Nasir took over this responsibility from his father and takes it very seriously.

The interior of the synagogue (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

When Nasir’s father passed away, he told him, "No matter how much God gives you in life, you must take care of this place."

Nasir is an Assyrian Christian, as are the vast majority of the residents of al-Qosh. The town is located in the Nineveh plains, which has deep roots in Christian heritage, most notably the Chaldean Monastery, which is carved deep into the steep cliffs off the mountain just north of the village.

A colourfully decorated home of a Christian Iraqi-Kurd in Al Qosh (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

Since the appearance of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, many Christian villages across the Niveveh plains have fallen under control of the militants.

The largest such village is Qaraqosh, 30km south-west of Mosul - which is still under the control of IS. In August 2015, residents of Qaraqosh and other Christian villages fled to safer parts of Kurdistan as IS put their villages under siege, adding another 100,000 displaced people to Kurdistan’s growing humanitarian crisis.  

Hebrew inscriptions engraved into the walls of the synagogue (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

Fighting has not yet reached the village of al-Qosh, but Tel Skuf village, a mere 17km away (approximately a 20-minute car journey) was besieged, then recaptured from IS, and is still a location of fierce fighting between IS militants, Peshmerga forces and Christian factions who have emerged.

The synagogue seems largely forgotten. “Just a few people ... come here. Sometimes foreigners come. There have been visitors from Holland, Denmark, and Germany,” Nasir tells Middle East Eye. “They believe in the culture, the Prophet, the Old Testament.”

Sarah in the interior structure that holds the ‘tomb’ of Nahum - although the contents of the tomb were moved long ago (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

Broken walls lie in rubble inside the synagogue with a barbed-wire fence that has been set up to discourage trespassers (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

“This is a very historical place and if we do not take care of it, it will be destroyed, and will be gone. In maybe just 10 years, this place will be destroyed,” Nasir tells MEE.

This is a matter of great concern to Nasir, who repeatedly mentions his great love for the holy site. “I really love it,” repeats Nasir.

But now with the frontlines between Kurdish forces and IS militants only a short car drive away, Nasir is concerned for the safety of his four young children - Jessica, Sami, Antony, and Sarah - and expresses the all too common desire to move abroad, a move which would leave the fate of the fallen synagogue in limbo.

The walls of the synagogue have started to deteriorate with lack of resources to repair the structure (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

“My brother will take care of it next because he will never leave this country,” says Nasir. “I don’t need to leave myself, but for the children I need to leave. Maybe I will come back one day.”

With his two children by his side, one holstered up on his hip, the other wrapped around his leg, Nasir lights a candle in an enclave chiselled into the interior walls of the synagogue. A few foreign Christian visitors have been to the synagogue today and a few candles already burn. Hebrew inscriptions engraved into the wall are visible next to him.

“I am proud to take care of this place,” Nasir says with a smile and a sigh, but who knows what will happen to it once he is gone. 

Candles are provided for visitors that would like to pray inside the synagogue. Lighting candles are used in both Jewish and Christian religious rituals. (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)

Nasir with his wife inside their home a short walk from the synagogue (MEE/Andrea Dicenzo)