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Survival of Ancient Faith Threatened by Fighting in Iraq

Driven from Iraq and Iran, many Mandaeans have adapted to their new homes, enjoying financial success as medical doctors, civil engineers and jewelers, Nashi said.

But being scattered means that many in the younger generation have found spouses outside the community. And since a Mandaean has to be born a Mandaean, the children of such marriages have a questionable status in the religion.

Mamoon Aldulaimi, 60, of Lake Grove, N.Y., is a civil engineer who's a leader in the Mandaean community. Aldulaimi's son, 20-year-old Hani Aldulaimi, married an American raised as a Baptist.

At the wedding last May in the Phoenix area, where the newlyweds live, Mamoon Aldulaimi's daughter-in-law prominently displayed a darfash, a cross with cloth hanging off of it that's a symbol of Mandaeanism.

"She took that initiative as a matter of respect for us," Aldulaimi said.

But with the religion's few dozen priests reluctant to agree on a mechanism to bring in the children of mixed marriages, Aldulaimi and others wonder how long Mandaeanism will survive.

Meanwhile, the few thousand Mandaeans still living in Iraq are finding their lives increasingly in danger, targeted by extremists of every political stripe and religious faith.

Nashi said a cousin on his father's side, Suhail Jani Sahar, was killed by Shiite fighters in November. A more distant cousin on his mother's side, Yahya al-Chuhaily, was killed by Sunnis in June.

"Where there are areas where the Shia are the majority, they'll kill the Mandaeans and the Christians along with the Sunnis. Where there are areas where the Sunni are the majority, they'll kill the Mandaeans and the Christians along with the Shia," Nashi said.

Jorunn Buckley, an assistant professor of religion at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, has studied Mandaeans for decades and has testified for them in U.S. immigration courts. She said the United States could do much more to get Mandaeans out of the Middle East.

"It's not that many people," Buckley said. "It's not 5 million people."

When contacted about the issue, a State Department spokesman cited Jan. 17 congressional testimony by Ellen R. Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, who said the department has been expanding the ability of the United States to bring in more Iraqi refugees, including the "special populations" of religious minorities.

"We intend to ensure that these special populations receive the same consideration and access to the U.S. resettlement program as others," Sauerbrey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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