Terrorist attacks don’t phase Sherzad Omar Mamsani, even when an attack claimed one of his arms and left shrapnel throughout his legs. There’s a reason he was a target: he is a Kurdish Jew.
“This is my calling. How can I run away from it? This is my history. This is my faith. This is not something I do just for a living. It is my life,” Mamsani told CNA .
Last year, Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government appointed Mamsani as the Jewish representative to the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.
“This position sends a message to the world. In a time of war between barbarism and humanity, all creeds and ethnicities are free and protected in Kurdistan,” he said.
“After more than 70 long years of suffering, hatred and exile, we now have the freedom to choose and declare our faith and to live it openly,” Mamsani added. “I am so happy and thankful to God and to the government.”
Mamsani has survived three terrorist attacks. He is still hunted for being unabashed about his heritage. Born in 1976 in Iraqi Kurdistan to a Jewish mother and Kurdish Muslim father, he believes his birthright is something of which to be proud.
In 1997, Mamsani was inspired to write a book that explored Kurdish-Jewish relations. Its publication spurred death threats and subsequent attacks. He eventually wrote another book on the rise of Islamic extremism in Iraq.
“I am a Kurd and a Jew. This is who I am,” he exclaimed. “I should not be forced to hide who I am or feel ashamed for my beliefs. I proudly stand with my fellow community members.”
In the 1940s, Iraqi Jews began experiencing high levels of discrimination and violence. This persecution prompted the exodus of approximately 130,000 Iraqi Jews, who fled to Israel between 1950 and 1952. The following year, Jewish emigration was banned.
Although some claim there are no longer any Jews in the region, Mamsani is proof to the contrary.
“Many people claim that there aren’t any Jews in Kurdistan. These people don’t live in Kurdistan. They left a long time ago and don’t know the current situation,” he said. “My family and I are here and there are 40 to 50 other Jewish families with us who are committed to practicing their faith.”
“But I believe there are hundreds more. Many are in hiding and afraid to come out,” Mamsani added. “I am confident that in the future, they will feel safe enough to join our group.”
Religious freedom advocate Tina Ramirez said Masmani is an inspiration to religious minorities.
“Sherzad gives a lot of people hope,” she told CNA. “If a Jewish person can have this kind of position in the Middle East and is willing to risk his life against terrorists and stand for the freedom of people of his faith, then there is nothing anyone can’t do.”
Ramirez is CEO of Hardwired Global, an NGO that trains local leaders around the world to defend religious freedom for themselves and others.
“It has been so hopeless for so many minorities for so long that I think Sherzad’s courage and work gives them hope that they have a future,” she added.
Since assuming his position, Mamsani has already made headway in advancing his cause.
“In the last year or so, we have made great progress,” he said. “We are already seeing that the preconceived negative image Muslims and other religious minorities have of Jewish Kurds is changing. They are seeing that the hatred they were told to have towards us is unjustified and we are beginning to see a whole new mindset towards us.”
“Also, for the first time, Jewish Kurds are now living freely with other religious minorities,” he said with pride. “This is a great accomplishment.”
In April 2015, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government passed the Law of Minorities, which gives every religious community in the region the right to establish a representation office in the government and to practice their religion freely.
The Iraqi Kurdistan government now officially represents eight religious communities: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis, Baha’is, and Mandaeans
Mariwan Naqshbandi, official spokesperson of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, spearheaded the religious freedom law.
“I have seen countries with people of diverse and numerous faiths and they live in harmony,” Naqshbandi told CNA. “This is what inspired me to write the law and help get it passed.”
“As a Muslim working in religious affairs, I know the history of our people and our rich culture which has many other religions. The right to worship is a freedom everyone should have,” Naqshbandi emphasized.
Ramirez encouraged the American people to not give up on their efforts in Iraq.
“The U.S. has invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears in Iraq. At this point in time, we have a real opportunity to encourage the government to make religious freedom a priority,” Ramirez said. “We often forget that the history of Jews is intertwined with Christianity. We need to value this history and defend all communities struggling to survive.”
Mamsani said there is still a lot of work left to be done, but is undeterred.
“We need your help to support our government and the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. Help us to stand for our human rights,” he pleaded. “I have my faith and I will continue to fight for my beliefs. Religious freedom is worth fighting for.”