For the first time in modern Turkish history, Jews held a public menorah-lighting ceremony Sunday to commemorate the last night of Chanukah.
Held at Istanbul’s iconic Ortaköy Square, the event was promoted by Turkish state officials, and organized by the local municipality. Attendees included officials from Istanbul’s Governor’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, the imam of the Ortaköy Mosque, several of the country’s rabbis, and the consul-generals of Israel, the United States and Spain.
Turkey’s Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva lit the candles.
According to reports, the audience comprised of both Jews and Muslims, and comes on the heels of a Chanukah greeting from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called for acceptance of all religions and peoples.
“With these thoughts, I wish peace, happiness and welfare to all Jews, primarily Turkey’s Jewish citizens who are an inseparable part of our society, on the occasion of Chanukah,” Erdogan said last week, reports Turkish daily Hürriyet. “I wish a culture of peace and tolerance to dominate the world and an immediate end to violence and hatred.”
Local Jewish community leader Ishak Ibrahimzadeh addressed the crowd Sunday, offering “heartfelt thanks” to Turkey for allowing the country’s first-ever public Chanukah ceremony in modern history.
According to the Times of Israel, some 17,300 Jews currently reside in Turkey, the majority of which dwell in Istanbul, making it the largest Jewish community in a Muslim country. For years, Turkish Jews have been celebrating Chanukah in secret, or at home. Ynet reports that many have even changed their names so as not to be identified as Jews.
Earlier this year, Turkey’s Great Synagogue was reopened as part of a bid to make the country’s minorities feel more welcomed. As reported by Reuters, many of Turkey’s Jews were fearful of growing anti-Israel sentiment at the time.