The tomb of the Prophet Nahum in Al-Qosh..
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The tomb of the Prophet Nahum, which overlooks the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq, is now near the forefront of tensions between the Iraqi federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government.
Since last week Iraqi forces, including Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, have been fighting with Peshmerga in an attempt by Baghdad to push Kurdish forces out of disputed areas and take oil fields and strategic border areas from the Kurds. Although a cease-fire took effect on Friday, tensions remain high.
Shelling in a Christian town near the Jewish tomb is the latest in years of turmoil that have affected the site.
The Nineveh Plain Protection Units, NPU, Operations Against ISIS. (YouTube/ NPU NinevehPlainProtectionUnits)
The tomb is in the ancient Christian town of Al-Qosh, inside a complex that also served as a synagogue and has partly collapsed over the years. The Jewish community of this area of northern Iraq and Kurdistan left in the 1940s and 1950s.
The origin of the tomb is often said to date back 2,700 years. National Geographic, however, noted in 2015 that the synagogue’s walls date from 1173. The article said that locals in the area had “wild conspiracy theories [that] warn of Zionist plots to seize control of war-torn Iraq and, with jihadists on the doorstep, the town’s people are nervous about feeding into these fears.”
In 2014 when Islamic State conquered part of Iraq, its fighters surged through Nineveh plains, expelling the Christian communities and arriving on the doorstep of Al-Qosh.
Kurdish Peshmerga with support from coalition air strikes pushed ISIS back and held a front line 14 km. in front of Al-Qosh in a village called Telskop for three years.
There have been attempts to preserve the tomb over the years, but local government moved slowly. An awning and some barbed wire was erected after 2003. During a visit to the site in 2015 it was in a state of partial collapse. Various efforts by conservationists, Jewish donors and activists and the Kurdistan Regional Government to raise awareness about the tomb did not result in preservation.
“The tomb and the shrine were protected by the KRG and kept by a local Christian family. The structure is very vulnerable and in 2016 I sent a letter to UNESCO urging the organization to protect the historical structure,” said Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, who chairs a group in the Knesset devoted to protection of Jewish culture and heritage in Arab and Muslim countries.
After the threat of ISIS declined, efforts to highlight the tomb’s need for protection lessened. “Unfortunately till this moment no reconstruction on the site has begun,” Svetlova said.
Kurds abandon territory as Iraqi forces advance, October 18, 2017. (Reuters)
Since Iraqi forces began clashing with the Peshmerga in the wake of an independence referendum, the tomb and areas around it face new tensions.
On Tuesday Iraqi forces asked the Peshmerga to withdraw from areas around Al-Qosh that are not within the borders of the Kurdish autonomous region.
When the Kurds did not withdraw, their positions in Telskop were shelled. The US ambassador to Baghdad, Douglas Silliman, intervened.
According to the embassy’s Twitter account he “worked with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga to end clashes endangering a Christian community and other civilians.”
Hundreds of Christians from Telskop fled to Al-Qosh. The Shlama Foundation, which provides support from the “Chaldean Syria Assyrian diaspora to our people in the homeland,” posted photos from Saturday showing volunteers providing breakfast.
The Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, a Christian armed unit that is connected to the Iraqi security forces, was also on hand to help.
This creates a complex situation with Kurdish Peshmerga near the town and Iraqi forces seeking to enter it, while local Christian groups administer aid. “The region and its people must not again become a zone of conflict. The NPU urges all parties involved to engage in peaceful dialogue,” the NPU wrote in an online statement.
“As Iraqi forces approach the town of Al-Qosh, the danger to the historic tomb of Prophet Nahum is growing,” said Svetlova. “I’m concerned that the warfare in the region between the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga will result in a destruction of the tomb that was once a center for Jewish pilgrimage from all parts of Iraq. I urge the American authorities to protect the Jewish shrine of the Prophet Nahum at Al-Qosh before it is too late.”