The majority of the people in the Kurdistan Region are Sunni Muslims. There are also a large number of Christians of different churches, such as Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian and Catholic Chaldean. Thousands of Christian families have fled violence and threats in other parts of Iraq and found refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
A religion that is practiced only in Kurdistan is Yazidism, which has tens of thousands of adherents. Followers of this believe go on pilgrimage to Lalish, a holy place situated in the Shekhan district in the Nineveh province. The Kakai faith is also practiced in the region. Kakai are Shia Kurds and just like Yezidi’s they also believe in reincarnation.
Jews in Kurdistan
Kurdistan’s Jews trace their heritage to the members of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin, who arrived in the area in the 8th century B.C. Jews have inhabited Mesopotamia for nearly 3,000 years and throughout the rise of Islam and into the twentieth century, mosques and synagogues enjoyed a cordial coexistence.
Centuries of amicability decayed, however, when in early June 1941 Nazi-inspired anti-semitism in Baghdad encouraged rioters to loot and destroy Jewish homes and shops during the Jewish Shavuot festival. Known as the Farhud, the two-day pogrom left nearly 200 dead and a community traumatized.
A few years later, the rebirth of Israel fanned the embers of anti-semitism in Iraq. In response, Israel organised Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, a 1951 airlift that granted Israeli citizenship to Iraqi Jews who felt threatened. In just two years, around 120,000 Iraqi Jews fled to Israel.
According to Professor Yona Sabar, a professor of Semitics at UCLA, there were approximately 25,000 Kurdish Jews in Kurdistan in the 1950s before they immigrated to Israel, leaving behind neighbors and friends who took care of their synagogues, in some cases for years.
The Kurds played a pivotal role in helping Jews to escape. Jewish families have recounted how Masoud Barzani, now president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, personally helped smuggle them out over the mountains.
In 2015 the Kurdish Regional Government passed the Law of Minorities, which gave a handful of minority religions - Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism among others - the right to official representatives in the government through the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. The Jewish representative appointed by the government was Sherzad Mamsani.
Number of Jews in Kurdistan today is unclear. Depending on the source, numbers vary from several to some 400 families. At the present time, there are no operating synagogues in Kurdistan.
Kurds in Israel
Immigration of Kurdish Jews to Israel initiated during the late 16th century, with a community of rabbinic scholars arriving to Safed, Galilee, and a Kurdish Jewish quarter being established there as a result.
In the 20th century, Kurdish immigrants arrived in the 1920s and 30s and by 1948 there were some 8,000 Kurds in the country. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, almost all the Jews of the Iraqi Persian and Turkish parts of historic Kurdistan were airlifted to the new state in 1950-51 in an operation known as “Magic Carpet”.
In recent years, many Kurdish Jews have achieved high positions in the army and civil service, among them the former Minister of Defense, Yitzhak Mordechai.
Today, there are about 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel, half of whom living in Jerusalem.
Every year, the ancient community gathers in Israel's capital and other cities around the country to celebrate the annual Kurdish Jewish holiday: Saharane. This tradition -- which has at least 2,000-year-old continuity -- gathers nowadays more than 10,000 people singing, dancing, eating, and trading stories from the old country in their traditional Aramaic tongue.