Mandaeans in struggle for existence
By Stephen Starr
DAMASCUS – Last May, a group of armed men shot and blasted their way through a jewelry market in the Bayaa district of southwest Baghdad. Their target was the gold, jewels and cash located in the dozen or so stores located along the street. By the time this new breed of Iraqi terrorism had ended, 15 civilians were dead. Among the dead were Sabaen Mandaeans, followers of a little-known sect now on the verge of extinction.
One man who worked in one of the stores was a cousin of Nasir Shathur, a Mandaean who lives in Cardiff, but who recently returned to Syria to receive baptism with his wife and young daughter. “The tragedy our family is going through is too much. The real crime here is seeing a two-year-old child looking for her dad at his funeral,” he said. Her father was 25-year-old Arshad Amjad Kashmar, one of two Mandaeans killed in the attack.
Mandaeans are followers of John the Baptist and moved from the Holy Land to the expanses of today’s southern Iraq and southwest Iran around the second century AD. Their religious origins are thought to have been drawn independently of Christianity and may even be older. They are monotheists – thought to be the oldest in the Middle East – believing in a single god.
Mandaeans are also Gnostics, believing in mysticism and a heightened role of the natural world. Very little has been recorded of the Mandaean religion and traditions and in principle people cannot convert to, or leave, the religion. They speak their own language and have quietly been struggling to keep their customs alive for almost 2,000 years.
In Iraq, Mandaeans were drawn to becoming goldsmiths and jewelers, and known for being generally well-off, for generations. The attack in May stands as just one recent example of a series of tragedies facing these people in Iraq today.
Under former president Saddam Hussein, Mandaeans were prohibited from practicing their religion in public and when the regime moved to crush the Shi’ite movements that revolted in the aftermath of the 1990 Gulf War, the Mandaean communities of the southern marshes were driven out of their homes.
Before this, in the 1980s, Mandaeans were conscripted to fight in the war with Iran – a direct contravention to their religion which does not allow followers to handle weapons of any form. Hundreds died in this conflict.
With the ousting of Saddam in 2003, Mandaeans were free to practice their religion. However, post-Saddam Iraq has proved far more damaging to this community. Targeted attacks on members of the Mandaean community have been recorded to number in the thousands. Kidnappings (by the end of last year recorded at 271 incidents), murders, forced conversions, and the fact that Mandaeans have no clan system in a society where tribal roots are sources of identity and protection, means they have no support or security in Iraq.
Today, only about 5,000 Mandaeans remain in Iraq, with about 70,000 spread across 22 countries from Europe to Australia and the United States, with the vast majority in Damascus. Many now fear for the future of their religion. “In around 30 years I believe there will be no Mandaean religion left. Because of the war we have been thrown to the four corners of the world,” said Youseff, (the name is changed to protect his identity), an elderly man.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Mandaeans have been the victims of targeting by extremist elements on the Internet, being denounced as “non-believers” or infidels who should be “exterminated”.
Mandaeans in Damascus have descended in numbers on the suburb of Jaramanah in the southeast of the capital, where tens and even hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have been living for several years.
Most in Damascus are waiting on the possibility of being relocated in Europe or North America.
“I have been living the life of a Muslim since I moved here at the end of the 1980s – we had to move from Basra because the Iran-Iraq war was starting to affect us a lot,” said one woman who was receiving baptism along with her husband and teenage son. She said none of her neighbors in Damascus know that she is not a Muslim and that to tell them the truth at any stage would deeply damage her family’s carefully casted reputation.
One 20-something woman had to leave a well-paying position with an American aid organization in Baghdad when her family decided to leave for Syria.
Youseff receives his Iraqi pension through a Syrian bank relayed from Baghdad. “I’m grateful to the Syrians – it’s only a couple of hundred dollars per month but it’s vital for me and my family.”
Life as refugees in Syria, however difficult, is a far preferred prospect than going back to Iraq.
According to the Mandaean Human Rights Group Annual Report 2009, a 68-year-old Mandaean woman was killed in August 2004 for refusing to give her daughter to Islamic terrorists and then for refusing to pay a ransom for her return. The same woman had her son killed a year earlier in Basra by extremists.
Hundreds of similar such incidents have been recorded. However, it is suspected that kidnappings and other attacks are often not being reported, with Mandaeans fearing a backlash from fundamentalist gangs.
Many of the Mandaean women who are now refugees in Damascus recalled having to veil themselves when going outside and when finally, leaving the country. “The highways of western Iraq were extremely dangerous,” said one woman. “In 2006 and 2007, the situation was impossible; we had no choice but to leave the country.”
When celebrating religious ceremonies, Mandaeans dress in white cloth and use flowing water in almost any form possible as a central aspect in celebrations, in keeping with John the Baptist’s own 2,000-year-old imagery. Others celebrating a day of weddings and baptisms in Damascus are studying to become Mandaean sheikhs, an honor that requires much dedication and commitment. Men must complete five separate “stages” before being able to perform official religious ceremonies.
The idea of returning to Iraq is largely impossible for Mandaeans. Yet, having seen savings fall away, many do not have a choice. What has greeted them has, in many cases been shocking. Abdul Kareem Mutashar Sbahi al-Ghaelani was deported from Denmark in December 2006 and in March the following year he was kidnapped and forced to pay a ransom before fleeing Iraq again. Another man was killed less than 24 hours after returning from Jordan. The Mandaean Associations Union reported he had exhausted his funds and was forced to return to Baghdad in search of work.
“Millions of dollars have been donated to help save the panda – are we less than an animal, this animal?” asked Youseff. “We need help and we need to move to a third country – Iraq is over for us, we can never dream of going back there.”
Stephen Starr is a Damascus-based Irish freelance journalist.