Sabian Mandaeans

This piece first aired on June 26, 2009, as part of the show, “Drying Up.”

Listen here.

    HOST: The Sabian Mandaeans have lived in Southern Iraq for centuries. A Gnostic religion that centers on the rite of baptism, Mandaeanism is thought to predate Judaism. As a small ethnic and religious minority, the Mandaeans have faced persecution throughout their history. They are pacifists by doctrine and do not accept converts. Skilled craftsmen, Mandaeans are known for their ability as goldsmiths and silversmiths. In the 1990s there were 60,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq. The increase in sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion has forced almost 90 percent of the Mandaean community to flee the country.

    Caitlin Jennings examines whether this small community will be able to survive outside of Iraq.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: A few months after the US invasion, Basil al Majidi began working for the Coalition Forces in Baghdad. He was appointed general manager of a tracking company responsible for making contracts to support US operations in Iraq. As a member of the Iraqi minority group the Sabian Mandaeans, al-Majidi says he felt like a second-class citizen under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. With Hussein no longer in power, al-Majidi and his parents were optimistic about the future.

    But, in the months that followed, sectarian violence in Iraq escalated between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Pacifists by doctrine, the Mandaeans are one of the most peaceful religious groups in Iraq. However, al-Majidi felt forced to keep his religious identity a secret.

    BASIL AL-MAJIDI: I worked from 2004 until 2007 and no one, absolutely no one in my company knew that I was Mandaean. They knew that I was a Muslim. When they used to ask me, “are you Sunni or Shiite?” I refused to tell them. I would tell them “I was just a Muslim, I don’t discriminate.”

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: Mandaeans are followers of John the Baptist, and their religious practice centers on the rite of baptism. But for Majidi and many other Mandaeans, public religious practice was out of the question.

    BASIL AL-MAJIDI: We even couldn’t do funeral ceremonies, for dead people. It was a problem. Many people were buried in their own backyards to avoid going to the cemetery which was in Abu Grahib area. So, like for practicing rituals, for maintaining and preserving your own faith inside yourself? No, we just forgot about that. We just left it behind.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: He started to receive death threats from Islamic militias both at his job and at his house. By 2006, the situation had reached what he refers to as “unbearable limits.”

    BASIL AL-MAJIDI: You just feel that you are, you are being rejected from all of the community, from all of your surroundings, from all your surroundings – so I had to escape.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: al-Majidi and his parents fled to Syria, where they joined 1.3 million other Iraqi refugees already there. After 2 1/2 years of waiting, al-Majidi was accepted for resettlement in the United States.

    Although al-Majidi is now safe in the US, he is still unable to practice his religion. He no longer fears religious persecution, but without priests and other Mandaeans he cannot practice or perform rituals.

    Dr. Suhaib Nashi, Secretary General of the Mandaeans Associations Union, an umbrella organization that encompasses all Mandaean Associations outside of Iraq and Iran argues that the resettlement of Iraqi Mandaeans across the globe, while saving individuals, is destroying the community as a whole.

    SUHAIB NASHI: Dispersing them all over the place is sweet poison for us, actually. It kills the religion. It actually finishes what the insurgency are doing. With all our benevolence, with our feeling of doing good for them, we are destroying them without us knowing. We really, really, really need understanding and being sensitive to that part of the salvage of the Mandaeans. That’s not salvage of a family, it’s a salvage of culture, salvation of a whole community, and a whole group of people and language and religion.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: Originally from Iraq, Nashi, who is Mandaean himself, fled in 1991 after the Iraq War. He currently lives with his family in New Jersey. He says that the only way for the group to survive in the long term is to have a sustainable community in one place.

    SUHAIB NASHI: We’re being divided all over Europe. We are being divided even in the United States. But there are rituals, religious rituals that need a group to do. The baptism, the intermarriage, the revival of the language. The revival of the religion.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: According to Dr. Layla al Roomi, spokeswoman for the Mandaean Human Rights Group, the existence of a Mandaean community in Iraq is no longer a viable option.

    LAYLA AL-ROOMI: The problem is the Mandaeans, as I said to you, they are dispersed all over Iraq. They don’t have any particular area where they live. They live among the Sunnis as much as among the Shias, as much as among the Christians, and hence, you know, they’re doubly inflicted that way, because they can’t defend themselves, they can’t wall themselves off in a small area and be sheltered and so on.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: She left Iraq in 1970 after spending 3 years in prison for dissident political views. al-Roomi now lives in the United Kingdom.Like Nashi, she argues that if the Mandaeans continue to be separated, spread among different religious groups in Iraq or as refugees in foreign countries, the community will not survive. She says one of the main problems is that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, only accepts Iraqi refugees on a case-by-case basis.

    LAYLA AL-ROOMI: Now when you go the UNHCR in Syria, or even, as I happened to go, to the UNHCR head office in Geneva, the answer is always the same that the first country of refugee, like the US, Europe, whatever, would accept people only an individual basis. And that you have to prove that you know, you really were persecuted as an individual but they wouldn’t accept the group as a group regardless of how much we tried to emphasize that this small community will not survive.

    CAITLIN JENNINGS: al-Roomi warns that if Mandaeans refugees continue to be resettled on an individual basis, the group will cease to exist. According to both Nashi and al-Roomi, the only way to save the Mandaean community from extinction is to resettle the Iraqi Mandaeans in large enough groups to allow for religious practice. Both the Mandaeans Union and the Mandaean Human Rights Group are lobbying several governments, including the United States, Sweden, and Australia, to accept Mandaean refugees as a group. As it stands now, the largest populations of Mandaean refugees are in Australia and Sweden, each numbering 7,000 people. There is currently a larger Mandaean population living in Australia than in their original homeland of Iraq.

    For War News Radio, I’m Caitlin Jennings.