Beliefnet News

By Ian Wilheim
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — The Iraq war has claimed many victims, but perhaps the least known is a small religion that scholars say is the last remaining link to ancient faiths that flourished during the time of the Roman Empire.
Mandaeanism, a monotheistic belief that follows the teachings of John the Baptist, has called Iraq home for almost 2,000 years. But sectarian violence and political strife have placed its followers in jeopardy, forcing many of them to flee to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere.
While Christians, Jews and other minority faiths in Iraq face similar difficulties, Mandaeanism — with only 60,000 members, no converts and a pacifist bent — faces the greater threat of outright extinction.
Now a Mandaean high priest is on a crusade to educate the West about the little-known faith and its struggle to simply survive.
“Our culture, our heritage, our religion is in danger. It has no roots anywhere on Earth,” said Sattar J. Hilo Al-Zahrony, 51, a Mandaean ganzabra, or high priest, stroking a long beard and wearing white robes.
Around his neck he wore a silver derfesh, a shroud-covered cross that is the Mandaean symbol.
“We are facing systematic destruction,” he said.
As a Gnostic offshoot, Mandaeanism is related to Christianity, but does not consider Jesus Christ as a prophet. Instead, followers develop spiritual knowledge through prayer and study to forge their own personal path to God and the “world of light” that awaits them in the afterlife.
In honor of John the Baptist, whom Mandaeans consider a great teacher but not divine, Mandaean religious services include water purification rituals similar to baptisms.
Historians consider the faith a living link to the past when Gnostic faiths — rival sects that were left on history’s cutting-room floor — competed with Christianity for supremacy in the Mediterranean.
“I personally am less concerned about scholarship and more concerned about what the loss of the Mandaeans means for the Middle East and mankind more generally,” said Charles G. Haberl, an instructor in Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University.
“The Mandaeans have made immense contributions to the society of modern Iraq, far out of proportion to their small size,” noting that Mandaeans’ work as craftsmen, academics and doctors could aid Iraq’s development.
The Mandaeans are asking Western nations to quickly accept Mandaean refugees, and have petitioned the United Nations to speed up the process of registering its displaced members.
Al-Zahrony was elected by Mandaeans in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to spread the word about his religion’s troubles. He recently met in Washington with State Department officials and members of Congress to urge protection for his tiny flock.
According to the New Jersey-based Mandaean Society of America, 107 Iraqi Mandaeans have been murdered and 208 kidnapped since 2003. Roughly 30,000 have fled the country since 2003, leaving a remnant of 5,000 behind.
Ironically, Mandaean religious doctrine is hindering the community’s ability to survive the crisis.
The faith doesn’t accept converts and it considers members who marry outsiders as no longer Mandaean — a major obstacle toward continuity if its followers are scattered throughout the world in refugee relocation programs.
In addition, the faith bars followers from arming themselves, making it impossible to set up a defense, militia or protected enclave in Iraq.
Mandaeans originally developed these rules centuries ago to reduce friction with orthodox Muslims communities, who consider Mandaeans heretics. They have historically employed one simple strategy to survive in the Middle East: “Stay quiet,” explained Al-Zahrony.
Mandaeans may change these rules, but only after the immediate crisis has ended and a consensus among the followers can be reached, the priest said.
“For now, we are paralyzed. The only solution is to find a safe place,” he said.
To that end, two countries present such a haven: the United States, where several hundred Mandaeans live in New Jersey and New York, or Australia, which also has a sizable population.
Thanks to lobbying efforts by Al-Zahrony and others, some American lawmakers are paying attention. In March, five House members wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on behalf of Mandaean refugees.
“Madam Secretary, there is an urgency to processing the Iraqi Mandaeans, as they are a distinct ethno-religious community that faces increasing threats that could potentially eliminate their community altogether,” wrote the four Republicans and one Democrat.
The State Department has said it is giving priority to Iraqi refugees who are members of persecuted religious minorities. But according to the Mandaean Society of America, the United States has only allowed in one Mandaean family this year due to security checks and other bureaucratic complications.
In better times, Al-Zahrony would spend his time overseeing religious services on Sundays and studying the religion’s sacred text, the ginza. But for now, with his religion in peril, he must plead for assistance from Washington.
“I came here to explain the misery of my people,” he said. “I saw a lot of compassion.”

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.