Jews represent Myanmar’s smallest religious group. The first were mainly merchants who came to the then Burma after the British conquest. At the end of the twentieth century, the community had less than 50 people.
Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In central Yangon, on the corner of MahaBandoola and 26th Street, stands Myanmar’s last Synagogue.
For about 50 years, religious services have been held occasionally in the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (pictured) but over that same period the building has become an important tourist attraction.
Sammy Samuels, leader of Myanmar’s Jewish community, takes care of it, helped by his sister Khana and U Myint Lwin, a local Muslim who is responsible for the building’s upkeep.
Jews represent the smallest religious group in a country where Buddhists account for about 90 per cent of the population.
Nine members of the community live in the nation's economic capital, to which must be added about 80 foreign Jews. Another 10 Jews are thought to live Mandalay and Pathein.
The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in 1854 by an Iraqi architect to meet the religious needs of the Jews who had come to what was then called Burma following the British conquest.
It was originally built out of wood but that structure burned in a fire in the 1890s. It reopened shortly after as the grand neo-classical facaded building that can be seen today.
The first Jews in Myanmar were Baghdadi Jewish merchants from India and Iraq. Cochin Jews and the Bene Israel also came from India.
Encouraged by British authorities, they settled mainly in Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay, where they started a thriving trade in rice and cotton.
Success in business contributed to the growth of the Burmese Jewish population, which reached its peak in 1940 with about 3,000.
In the early twentieth century, Jewish mayors governed both Pathein and Rangoon, where Yawmingyi Street, Yoaut Street and Boyarnyut Street once made up the city's "Jewish Town".
With Burma’s occupation by Japan, the Jewish population began to decline. During the Second World War, over 75 per cent of the community left the country.
The exodus continued with independence in 1948, as many Burmese Jews could no longer benefit from the British rule.
The coup de grâce came with the military coup of 1962 and the subsequent economic crisis. By the end of the century, there were fewer than 50 Jews left in the whole of Myanmar.