Survival of Ancient Faith Threatened by Fighting in Iraq
Saturday, February 10, 2007
TRENTON, N.J. -- Among the casualties of the Iraq war is a little-known religious faith called Mandaeanism that has survived roughly two millennia and whose adherents believe that John the Baptist was their great teacher.
While there were more than 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq in the early 1990s, only about 5,000 to 7,000 remain. Many have fled amid targeted killings, rapes, forced conversions and property confiscation by Islamic extremists, according to a report released last week by the New Jersey-based Mandaean Society of America.
Among the roughly 1,500 Mandaeans in the United States, there have been continual phone calls with endangered friends and relatives, fundraisers and unsuccessful lobbying efforts in Washington to get Mandaeans out of Iraq, as well as neighboring Jordan and Syria.
"Unfortunately, we're not big in numbers, and numbers talk," said Suhaib Nashi, a 53-year-old pediatrician who helps run the Mandaean Society of America out of his Morristown, N.J., home.
Mandaean leaders say tens of thousands of their brethren are scattered around the world, including a U.S. community centered around New York and Detroit.
With the dispersion comes concern that the faith is withering, especially as more Mandaeans marry non-Mandaeans, with no mechanism to bring their children into the fold.
"There's not much hope for us to survive to two or three generations," Nashi said.
Scholars who study the Mandaean religion and culture say its extinction would be a great loss, the end of an ancient religious movement. Dating to the time of the Roman Empire, it survived primarily in what is today Iraq and Iran, a branch of the Gnostic movement that borrowed elements of Christianity.
Mandaeans view John the Baptist as a great teacher, and engage in baptisms to come in closer contact with a "world of light" that is better than the material world on Earth.
"It represents a slice of the culture of the Middle East before the rise of Islam. It's a view to a former world. And frankly, we don't know very much about it," said Charles G. Haberl, an instructor in Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University.
Haberl, who says he's trying to arrange a reprint of one of the Mandaeans' main holy books for the first time in about 150 years, laments that an "enormous literary tradition" may soon disappear.
"It would be as if a museum or library were put to the torch," Haberl said.