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Few Remain of Iraq's Once-Thriving Jewish Community - 2003-05-07

Some of Iraq's minority religious groups led relatively protected lives under Saddam Hussein's rule. But their movements were also restricted, especially those who were part of Iraq's dwindling Jewish population, which dates back thousands of years.

When Saddam Hussein was in power, no stranger came to Emad Ezra Levy's house unless he was escorted by someone from the government. "The regime ask us not to talk to anyone, he said, adding, "And we are afraid."

Emad Levy, at 37, is the last remaining rabbi in Iraq. He ministers to a community of 35 elderly Jewish men and women, all that remains of a religious group that numbered more than 500,000 50 years ago.

The guided government tour would include a brief chat with Mr. Levy and a visit to the synagogue in central Baghdad. He says he was careful what he said to the visitors under the watchful eye of the government escort.

"And one [visitor] came to me and gave me his card [and said] 'Okay, I can help you. I can give you a visa to Germany.' They [the escorts] look after him. I take the card when they leave and I give it to the government. We must protect ourselves," said Mr. Levy.

Many members of Iraq's Jewish community left the country soon after Israel was created in 1948; most of those who remained left in the early 1970s, when Iraq began persecuting Jews, accusing them of spying for Israel. Many escaped through the northern Kurdish area of Iraq across the border into Iran or Turkey.

Mr. Levy says the persecution diminished under Saddam, but most of the community decided to leave the country anyway because they did not trust it would last.

Mr. Levy stayed behind to care for his elderly parents. He decided to take charge of the community after the previous rabbi left about four years ago.

"The last rabbi left in 1999 and then I am [the rabbi] instead of him. There is no one here. I learn Hebrew because I love it, and my father helped me," he said.

Mr. Levy describes himself as a self-taught Jewish priest, as he is known here.

Besides being the rabbi, Mr. Levy has taken over other responsibilities in recent years.

With the departure of the man who slaughtered sheep according to Jewish customs, Mr. Levy found himself taking over that job too. He also buries the dead.

And he keeps the community records, providing the government every year with a list of all the members, their names, addresses and car license plate numbers.

Mr. Levy says neighbors kept watch on the 60-year-old synagogue all through the war and the days of looting that followed. Like Iraq's churches and mosques, the synagogue was not ransacked.

But Mr. Levy still has not reopened the temple for religious services. He says he is not sure about the safety of his community as long as stability and security have not been restored completely.

And if he had the chance now. would he leave Iraq? Yes, Mr. Levy replies, he would not hesitate to leave Iraq and rejoin his elder brother in Europe. He is also looking for a suitable wife. With a community whose average age is 60, he has few prospects here.