Survival of Ancient Faith Threatened by Fighting in Iraq

By Chris Newmarker
Associated Press
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.

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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