10/09/2006, 00.00
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Yangon's synagogue risks closing

After decades of emigration, only 25 Jews still call Myanmar home. The community needs money; its only hope lies in tourism and Jewish visitors.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – For the past century a small synagogue has existed in Myanmar's capital, but the 25 or so Jews left in the country home are unable to pay for its upkeep but they are hoping that tourism and donations might keep it going.

Nestled between Indian paint shops and Muslim traders on a small street near the city centre, Musmeah Yeshua synagogue has survived for years thanks to foreign visitors, especially Jews.

"We had visitors from the whole world. Jews came from Israel, US, Canada, France, England," says Moses Samuels, trustee of the synagogue. However, donations are down these days because of American sanctions and other warnings against travel to Myanmar.

The synagogue dates back to 1896 when Myanmar (then Burma) was under British colonial rule. It was built for an increasing numbers of Middle Eastern and Indian Jews.

The community numbered as many as 2,500 people, running businesses and trading in cotton and rice. But their comfortable existence ended with the 1942 Japanese invasion and the 1962 military takeover. Only eight families are now left.

"I strongly believe that people should travel to Myanmar, since the junta is financed not by the relatively small spending of tourists," said Ruth Cernea, a US-based historian.

Mr Samuels and his son Sammy have set up a travel company, Myanmar Shalom, which begins operating in November, to bring tourists, especially Jews and Burmese Jewish expatriates by offering package tours to celebrate high holidays.

One possible tourist draw is an old Jewish cemetery on the edge of Yangon that lies in disrepair, with stray dogs sleeping on headstones and children running around overgrown graves. But Ms Cernea says it is due to be destroyed to make way for an urban development project. (PB)

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