Ur Kasdim, otherwise known as Ur of the Chaldeans, is where the march towards monotheism began. It is the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, father of the three great monotheistic faiths and a man who taught much of the world kindness, hospitality and unity.
It is a site pregnant with historic and moral significance for billions around the world.
Thus, it was deeply unfortunate that on Pope Francis’s recent historic tour of Iraq, especially during an interreligious prayer at the ancient archeological site of Ur, that no Jews were present.
While the Republic of Iraq is not a signatory to the Abraham Accords, the series of normalization agreements between the State of Israel and some Arab nations, change is nonetheless sweeping the region.
The people of the Middle East understand that the paradigms of history and the conflicts of the past are no longer the most resonant issues. The march towards greater progress and development, especially at such a globally challenging time, is what unites the region, regardless of religion, race or gender.
Nevertheless, faith still plays such an important role in these societies. As in the past, it can be divisive, but it can also be unifying.
As we witnessed in the United Arab Emirates, before there was an agreement with Israel there was a warm welcome to the Jewish community. Already before any open diplomatic steps between the two nations were taken, the Jewish community in the UAE had an openly Jewish life with easy access to kosher food and synagogues.
The Kingdom of Morocco had long been known as a place where Jews were not just tolerated but accepted. King Mohammed VI joined a long line of Moroccan kings who protected and respected their Jewish community.
In 2011, there were amendments made to the Moroccan Constitution attesting that the Hebrew component is part of the tributaries of the national identity. Andre Azoulay, an adviser to King Mohammed VI and founding president of the Essaouira-Mogador Association, affirmed that the House of Memory, or Dar al-Dhakira in Arabic, a Jewish museum, “bears witness to a period in which Islam and Judaism lived side by side in exceptional closeness and harmony. We wanted to investigate our heritage and protect what used to be the manifestations of the art of coexistence within the framework of mutual respect.”
These are just some of the manifestations of a warmer relationship between Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, throughout the region. In every case, it rests on the openness of local Jews and Arabs to not be defined by what divides us, but rather by what unites us.
The local Jews of the Middle East and North Africa have become a bridge to a better future. Our language, culture and history are local and informed by thousands of years of interaction and dialogue, both good and bad.
That is why it is so important to grasp any opportunity to break down further barriers, and the visit of the Pope to Iraq was certainly one of these.
No other country boasts a longer history of Jewish life outside of the land of Israel.
Whether in Babylon, Mesopotamia or Iraq, Jews lived, worked and prayed alongside their neighbors of multiple faiths and creeds for 2,500 years.
Unfortunately, this ended during the last century when Jews were forced to flee their homes and communities due to pogroms and persecution.
Those of us who left bear no ill will to the country or its inhabitants. In fact, the contrary is true. Many Jews of Iraqi origin would love to visit, and many have. Some have even voted in the elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein and bought homes as a symbolic act of attachment.
Iraq is still home, and the Iraqi people are our brothers and sisters, and we join them in a deep hope for peace, prosperity and security.
We also pray for the continuation of the peace that is ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, but we leave that to the politicians and the diplomats.
For our part, we would like to see a return of Jewish life to Iraq, but first, we need to witness a recognition from the Iraqi authorities of our history and deep ties to the country.
By not allowing Jews to take part in this unprecedented interfaith event in Ur, Jews were being unfortunately erased from Iraq’s past. This is not just a sad day for Jews, but a denial of Iraq’s past, one in which Jews played an important part in the mosaic fabric of life for millennia.
To have representatives of all of the children of Abraham stand together in his birthplace and pray for peace and yearn for accord would have been an important moment and the personification of Abrahamic values.
While this particular opportunity for unity was not realized, I certainly hope that it will be the last, and Ur, and the nation around it, will once again become the point of origin for harmony and fraternity to the wider region and beyond.
David Dangoor, a businessman and philanthropist, is a member of the Board of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) and honorary president of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq.