Kaifeng City (AsiaNews) - After nearly two centuries of absence, hundreds of people in the central province of Henan are preparing to celebrate the Passover (Pesach). They claim to be the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, and for some years have been trying to reconnect with the rituals and traditions of the religion of their ancestors.
The decision to celebrate the holiday - the most important in Jewish tradition - reflects a growing interest among some residents for their past. Until a few years ago, no one spoke Hebrew; yet no one understands why their families followed a tradition that forbade eating pork.
"I knew I was a Jew, but I didn't know what that meant," Esther Guo, a resident of the former imperial capital of Kaifeng, told the South China Morning Post. She says she is a descendant of Jewish settlers.
The first records of Jews settling in Kaifeng date to the Northern Song dynasty. From the 10th to the 12th century, the imperial capital served as a trade hub linking the empire with the Silk Road.
"The emperor allowed 17 clans of merchants to settle in the city as traders," said Liu Bailu, a professor at the Jewish Cultural Studies Centre at Henan University in Kaifeng. "Some estimate that more than 500 Jewish families settled in the city."
However, the city's last rabbi died around 1810. "By 1840, locals began selling parts of the synagogue," Liu said. "By 1866, nothing was left."
In fact, "Kaifeng Jews aren't Jews, they are descendants of Jews," Liu explained. "Some have only started to discover their roots with the help of foreigners very recently."
In mainland China, the government recognises only five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Religious believers have to register with state-sponsored religious organisations or live their faith under serious restrictions, running grave risks.
Judaism is not a recognised religion. Still, despite the lack of government approval, the authorities have tacitly tolerated the practicing of the Jewish faith.
China's ties with Israel have also improved significantly since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, marking a turning point for Jewish revival in China.
This year, Passover celebrations in Kaifeng will come four days after Israel's President Shimon Peres' return to Israel from his ongoing state visit to China, the first such visit in a decade.
Esther Guo, a former teacher, now runs a small museum dedicated to the Jewish community in Kaifeng.
One of her cousins moved to Israel to study Hebrew in 2006 and converted to Judaism the next year. Shavei Israel - a group dedicated to connecting isolated Jewish communities around the world with the state of Israel - organised the journey.
In 2009, seven Kaifeng men went to Israel, where they converted to Judaism and acquired Israeli passports.
One of them, 28-year-old Tzuri Shi, returned this week so he could celebrate Seder, the Passover ritual next Monday.
Another, Yaakov Wang, aims to return to Kaifeng as the city's first rabbi in more than two centuries.