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The Plight of Iraq’s Mandeans
The ongoing turmoil since the invasion of Iraq has exposed non-Muslim religious minorities to persecution that is worse than what they experienced during the regime of Saddam Hussein. They merit protection from the governments with armed forces in Iraq.
The U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom produces a report recommending to the President and the Secretary of State the designation of certain countries as "Countries of Particular Concern" with regard to religious persecution. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States removed Iraq from this list because of the greater freedom of the Shi’a Muslim majority (15; NB: references are ordered chronologically at the end). However, the chaos in Iraq and resentment toward what are seen as alien cultural elements have led to many attacks on religious minorities. This has been further encouraged by the hope that, with the fall of the secular Saddam, there is some chance of a Muslim state in Iraq (10). As a result, attacks on Iraqi Christians have increased since the spring of 2004 (14, 15, 16), a high point in the violence being the bombing of five churches in Mosul in August (13). However, in this article I want to focus on Iraq’s Mandaean population, since they tend to receive even less attention than do the Christians.
In the newsmedia, the Mandaeans are sometimes referred to as being devoted "to the teachings of John the Baptist" (7). This is accurate but misleading, not only because Mandaeans insist that theirs is the religion of Adam, but also because they have their own scriptures containing their own account of John the Baptist which disagrees with much of the Christian Bible’s depiction of the man. There are, furthermore, many elements of the Mandaean religion which Christians, as well as Muslims and Jews for that matter, would find alien (1, 2).
The Mandaean religion resembles ancient Gnosticism in some respects: God did not create the world directly, but delegated its creation to deputies who made both a superior world of light and an inferior darker world in which humans live, it being impossible to create a world of light without also creating a world of darkness. Salvation is the successful transition to the world of light after death. Many early Christians were Gnostic, but such ideas were also condemned in the early Church as well, and by the time of the Emperor Constantine, Christian Gnosticism was quite marginal. It did not survive very long in the West. It is a testimony to the traditional tolerance of Islam that a Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic religion, in the form of Mandaeanism, was able to survive throughout the medieval Middle East and into modern times, although I do not mean to imply that it was always easy for it do so.
Ironically, today some Iraqi Muslims are persecuting Mandaeans. According to reports received by the Sabian Mandaean Association in Australia (SMAA), attacks by Muslims against Mandaeans in Iraq commenced within days of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (17).
The Koran guarantees protection to Jews, Christians, and a somewhat mysterious group known as ‘sabaeans" or ‘sabians." The Mandaeans have survived through the centuries by identifying themselves as Sabaeans, but that identification is sometimes questioned. Prior to his assassination in August 2003, the Ayatollah al-Hakim, a prominent Shi,ite cleric in Iraq, judged that Mandaeans are not "people of the Book," meaning that they are not protected from forced conversion to Islam or even from being killed (6, 7). Their "unclean" status also makes it difficult for Mandaeans to find employment (4).
In December 2003, a Mandaean was confronted in front of a group of people in Baghdad and told to convert to Islam. When he refused, he was killed on the spot. Many similar incidents have been reported to the SMAA including an account of a seven-year-old boy burnt to death (6). The SMAA continues to receive reports of Mandaeans being raped and murdered, often with extreme violence. It has also received reports that Mandaean places of worship (mandi) have been confiscated in several Iraqi cities (5). The police are usually of little help, little effort being made to distinguish religiously motivated crimes from other crimes (7).
As of January 2004, thirty-five Mandaean families were forced to convert to Islam, this including forced circumcisions. Mandaean women and girls in these families were forced to marry Muslim men (6). It is crucial to note here that one cannot be a Mandaean unless both of one’s parents are Mandaean (1, 2, 11). Hence, the forced marriages are a means of forcing the religion out of existence. There are also numerous kidnappings of Mandaeans (7, 8), and police often tell the families that there is nothing they can do (7). Public baptisms are an important part of the Mandaean religion, and Iraqi Mandaeans are often harrassed and abused during these ceremonies (4). On 30 November 2004, a Mandaean clergyman, the Rev. Tarmida Saleem Ghada, was ambushed at the Mandaean place of prayer on the Deeala River. Tarmida was leading prayers at the river when Muslims shot him seven times in the legs, severely wounding him (17). The lawlessness of Iraq has also been used as an opportunity for the repudiation of debts owed to Mandaeans, leaving them without hope of redress (8).
The SMAA continues to receive reports that, in a number of localities in Iraq, Mandaeans find placards affixed to the doors of their homes accusing them of witchcraft, demanding that they convert to Islam or leave Iraq, and threatening them with death if they fail to comply. There are copies and certified translations of court records confirming this (17). According to a report posted in November, a militant group, the Islamic Mujahideen, has demanded that all Mandaeans in Iraq either leave the country, convert to Islam, or be killed (16). Since Saddam Hussein’s regime was secular, such persecutions had earlier been held in check to a much greater degree (4).
Religious minorities are fleeing Iraq in record numbers. The main refuge is Syria (13). Iran is not an attractive option; Mandaeans are an illegal sect there (4), and sometimes they even face imprisonment (15). Mandaeans living in Iran, along with other religious minorities including Sunni Muslims, experience persecution (3, 12) including not being permitted to join labor unions in the case of Mandaeans and Bahais (9). According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2004, there are reports of Iranian Mandaeans often being denied access to higher education and being forced to pray in an Islamic manner contrary to their own religious teachings.
The number of Mandaeans worldwide is estimated from about 60,000 (10) to 150,000 (11). Their persecution raises the very real possibility that their religion will go out of existence, especially in light of the fact that they do not seek or even allow converts and that, as noted previously, one can only be a Mandaean if both of one’s parents were (1, 2, 11).
Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, writes that "The Sabaean Mandaean Association of Australia believes all governments with troops in Iraq should be required to rescue from Iraq all the Mandaeans and Christians who have been forcibly converted to Islam" (6), and "Refuge should then be provided in America and its allied nations" (8). She notes that under Article 5 of the Geneva Convention, the Mandaeans qualify as a Protected People and should be treated as such by the Occupying Power (5). No doubt one could argue that the U.S. and other governments with military presences in Iraq are not "occupying powers," and of course that has been argued. It is convenient to do so. Technicalities aside, protection would be the decent thing to do.
JOHN BOLENDER is a U.S. citizen teaching in the philosophy department of Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Gorgias Press, Piscataway, New Jersey, 2002; first published in 1937.
2 Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002, translated from the Italian by Charles Hindley; first published in 1993.
3. Human Rights Watch, "By Invitation Only": Australian Asylum Policy; www.hrw.org/reports/2002/australia/index.htm
4. Elizabeth Kendal, "Will the Mandaeans Survive Post-War Iraq?," World Evangelical Alliance, 24 July 2003; www.worldevangelical.org/
5. Elizabeth Kendal, "Iraq: Christians & Mandaeans " Cousins in Faith, United in Suffering," World Evangelical Alliance, 29 September 2003; www.worldevangelical.org/persec_iraq_29sep03.html
6. Elizabeth Kendal, "Iraq: The Persecution of Mandaeans," ASSIST News Service, 31 January 2004; www.assistnews.net/Stories/s04010098.htm
7. Willis Witter, "Iraqi Christians Fear Muslim Wrath," The Washington Times, 7 April 2004; www.washtimes.com/world/20040406-105600-9870r.htm
8. Elizabeth Kendal, "Can Sovereignty Guarantee Security?," World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis, 28 May 2004; www.mandaeanworld.com/mhr_iraq_2004_8.html
9. Amnesty International, Amnesty International’s Concerns Relevant to the 92nd International Labour Conference, 1 to 17 June 2004; web.amnesty.org/library/index/engior420082004
10. Refugees International, "Refugees International Advocates with Danish Government for Asylum for Mandaeans from Iraq," 21 June 2004; www.refugeesinternational.org/content/article/detail/977
11. Valentinas Mite, "Old Sabaean-Mandean Community Is Proud of Its Ancient Faith," Radio Free Europe, 14 July 2004;
12. Anne Henderson, "Govt Bows to MPs with a Show of Compassion," Canberra Times, 14 July 2004; www.mandaeanworld.com/mhr_aus_2004_23.html?1089878979930
13. Katherine Zoepf, "Exodus: Many Christians Flee Iraq, With Syria the Haven of Choice," The New York Times, 5 August 2004.
14. Dale Gavlak, "Iraqi Christians Fleeing to Jordan, Syria," Compass Direct News, 6 October 2004; www.crosswalk.com/news/religiontoday/1289972.html
15. John Hanford, "Testimony by John Hanford, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Depaertment of State," 6 October 2004; wwwc.house.gov/international_relations/108/han100604.htm
16. "US Support Seen as Disaster, for Christian Minority in Iraq," Assyrian International News Agency, 23 November 2004.
17. Sabian Mandaean Association of Australia, personal communication, 13 December 2004.