“Hello Sheila, I’m in Ezekiel’s Tomb, how are you doing?” Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, said over the phone. “Everything here is intact, glorious and beautiful.”
The short exchange this week between White and his longtime friend Sheila Raviv, stuck in traffic in her hometown of Jerusalem when she received the call, brought an end to months of concern over the fate of the tomb, following reports in Iraqi media outlets that Iraq’s Antiquities and Heritage Authority planned to build a mosque there.
The tomb is located in Al-Kifl, a small town south of Baghdad. As part of the renovations, according to the rumors set off by the report, ancient Hebrew inscriptions and ornaments were being removed.
“I went to make sure that the rumors were not true, and they weren’t,” White told The Jerusalem Post
Raviv had recently written to White, with whom she has been in close contact since he was in Israel in 2000, to express her concern over the condition of the holy site. White said he doubted that the local mullahs, the ruling Shi’ite religious authorities, would indeed allow such a desecration, but told Raviv he’d personally check things out.
The three-hour journey from Baghdad, where White resides, to the Al-Kifl site is considered highly dangerous and necessitated an escort of 30 security personnel. But for White, who also tends to the needs of the eight-member Jewish community of Iraq, “my No. 1 priority in Iraq is maintaining Jewish sites.”
At Ezekiel’s Tomb, White met with the local mullahs, who ensured him that they wanted to maintain the Jewish holy site in its current form while enabling Christians and Muslims, who also consider Ezekiel one of their prophets, to visit the site. White’s photographs of the tomb, which he sent to Raviv, show remnants of whitewash at the bottom of some of the Hebrew inscriptions, most likely left over from Saddam Hussein’s era, and minor damage caused by the efforts to clean the dirt that had accumulated over the years.
While local Muslims continue to pray in the tomb’s shrine, there is no concept of it being a Muslim place of worship, White went on to explain, noting the presence of a mosque next to the tomb.
“The mullahs were very positive about preserving the site, and even asked me to provide Jewish Bibles in Hebrew,” White said.
For Shmuel Moreh, a professor of Arabic Literature at Hebrew University, relief over the news – which he had also recently received from an Iraqi source – was mixed with a feeling of victory.
A year ago, an Iraqi acquaintance told Moreh of the local religious authorities’ reported intentions. Since then, Moreh, a recipient of the 1999 Israel Prize in Middle Eastern studies as well as chairman of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, utilized all his skills and connections to prevent what could have been irreversible damage to an important religious heritage site.
Moreh told the Post
on Thursday of his efforts with the Shi’ite and secular leadership to prevent what seemed like genuine intentions to modify the religious character of Ezekiel’s Tomb. One of his contacts, a distinguished scholar respected by the Shi’a authorities for his traceable lineage to the house of the prophet Muhammad, personally delivered a letter from Moreh on the issue to the Iraqi president and prime minister.
Moreh also cited a letter that Ayatollah al-Rikabi had sent to Iraq’s
foremost religious Shi’a authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,
requesting that the tomb remain in its current form as a Jewish holy
site. Rikabi also told Sistani that Shi’ites should be sensitive to
needs pertaining to holy sites, reminding him of the difficulties facing
Shi’ites who were prevented by Wahabis from visiting religious sites.
It may have been efforts by Moreh and Jewish communities around the
world that ensured the tomb was kept in its original form, or the whole
affair may have been a result of a misunderstanding – or even a rumor
deliberately spread by foes to besmirch the Shi’ites. But both White and
Moreh stressed to the Post
the dire condition of
many other ancient Jewish sites in Iraq, such as the tombs of the
prophets Jonah, Nahum, Ezra and Daniel, some of which lay in ruins with
no one to maintain them.
“We must speak out and not remain silent,” Moreh said.