One of Iraq’s most ancient religious minorities is about to close the books on its history in Iraq. According to the Society for Threatened Peoples, the Mandaean community in Iraq, which had numbered about 30,000 people a few years ago is now down to a handful of individuals who are in the Society For Threatened Peoples “sitting on their suitcases.
The Mandaeans have lately been subjected to a series of kidnappings, mostly for ransom in recent days. The article on the Society for Threatened Peoples website reports as follows on the difficulties faced by Mandaeans in Iraq.
In Iraq two more members of the Mandaean community have been abducted. The Society for nknown armed group in the quarter of SchareÂ´a Falastin in Bagdad. The criminals have dThreatened Peoples (GfbV) learned on Wednesday that the 40-year old Mandaean, Inssam Mubarak Muhalhal, and her 12-year old son Said Mazen Said were abducted on Friday by an uemanded a ransom of 100,000 US dollars, stated a GfbV colleague from the Iraqi capital by telephone.The GfbV fears that the exodus of the Mandaeans from Iraq is almost over. “The last members of this religious community, which has a history of some 2000 years in Iraq , are now sitting on packed suitcasesâ€, said the GfbV Near-east consultant, Kamal Sido, in GÃ¶ttingen. This new abduction is just one of a series of attacks, to which the Mandaean community has been subjected for a long time. At the end of June 2008 an 18-year old Mandaean was abducted in the town of Zubayr in the province of Basra and only released after payment of a large ransom. In mid-June 2008 a Mandaean was abducted in the quarter of Althoura in Bagdad on his way to work. 30,000 US dollars had to be paid for his release. In February 2008 ten members of a Mandaean family died in a rocket attack aimed at their house in the Alaza area of Kut in the south of Iraq . They had previously received threats from Islamists. Meanwhile at least 25,000 of the Mandaeans in Iraq, who previously numbered about 30,000, have in the face of the continuing terror and crimes of violence against members of their religious community fled to neighbouring countries. The Mandaean community, which traces its roots back to John the Baptist, has now only about 60 members throughout the world. About 1,200 of them live in Germany . Among the refugees from Iraq, who have come to Germany through the reception centre in Friedland, there have also been some Mandaeans. ”
The displacement of the Mandaeans has been particularly traumatic to their communal and religious life. Mandaean religious law requires weekly baptisms on Sunday, which is their prescribed day of religious rest. The construction of Mandaean houses of worship as well as the training of Mandaean clergy has not kept pace with the resettlement of the Mandaeans.
It should be noted that Mandaeans present no political or religious threat in Iraq or any place else. The monotheistic faith, which is distinct from Christianity, Judaism and Islam does not seek or accept converts. It bans circumcision.Both parents must be Mandaean to transmit the faith to their children. The Mandaeans are pacifists and will not even defend themselves. This tenet of their faith, combined with their prosperity makes them easy targets for Muslim militias.
There is no contiguous area in which Mandaeans predominate. They are scattered in Iraq and in Iran, where they have been officially stripped of their status as a “people of the book”, which used to provide them with limited protection.
An additional problem is faced by Mandaean refugees being processed in Australia, where some have been subject to violence at the hands of Muslim detainees with whom they are housed. Tensions in Iraq often spill over into areas abroad where Mandaeans are attempting to start over. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation did a wide ranging documentary in which the precarious position of the Mandaeans in Iraq was discussed at length. An excerpt from the transcript below conveys the magnitude of the fear faced by that besieged community.
“Michael Otterman: People I met in Syria are living in essentially slums. The Iraqis in Syria live in the outskirts of Damascus in enclaves. One’s called Jeramana. It was there that I met one Mandaean who told me one of the saddest stories I heard on my trip. He was sitting at home one day back in Baghdad where four masked men barged in and demanded that he convert, and if he didn’t convert they would take his son away from him. And he said, ‘I’m a Mandaean, I cannot change my religion,’ and he even offered them money, they didn’t want his money, they wanted him to convert. When he refused to, they literally ripped his child out of his mother’s arms and took him away. Three days later he got a phone call from one of the men saying, ‘If you want to see your son you can find him on this highway.’ When he went to the highway his son was there but he was murdered, shot in the head.
And as sad as it is, this is a story that has been repeated in some other elements by other people I met. Kidnapping, these forced conversions, are incredibly common. Mandaeans are targeted by both Sunni extremists and Shia extremists in today’s Iraq, which they view as a Muslim state, there’s not much room for Mandaeans.
Erica Vowles: This is Encounter on ABC Radio National and we are talking about the Mandaean community in Australia. I’m Erica Vowles and I met with many members of the community whose stories echo those conveyed by Simon Jeans and Michael Otterman, stories of family members being kidnapped or killed, and having to flee their homeland in terror for their lives.
Fedwa is a small woman with a kind face and a quiet but determined manner. She now lives in Fairfield in Sydney, with her daughters and husband. Like so many Iraqis she fled her country with only the belongings she could carry. She told Encounter that after the American invasion, her family’s way of life changed.
Fedwa : Well, actually after the war things became very difficult, and for us to live and go to our work, and my girls, I have three daughters, for them to go to the schools and complete their education, things were very difficult because we were threatened all the time, we were objected to insults and discrimination and all these kind of things. So we were just losing our will and our power to live and we decided that we must leave Iraq because if you stay you will be killed, there is no other way, you will be killed.
Erica Vowles: As a doctor, Fedwa had survived the lean years of the sanctions and had risen to the top of her profession. She had always dreamed of getting a real clinic set up to help treat the local people. So after the war, aid agencies and the American military helped provide the money and the materials necessary to make this happen. But this assistance came at a price. She became a target not only for accepting the help of foreigners, but also because of her prominent position as a manager of a clinic. At first she did not take the threatening phone calls seriously.
Fedwa : First they started doing the phone calls and they said that, ‘You are a Mandaean, you are a disbeliever, you must be killed, and you are a woman and you are head of and you are bossing a lot of Muslim men, and you are cooperating with the Americans troops, you should be killed, you must stop doing this.’
Erica Vowles: Then one day the phoned threats turned into a real life confrontation for Fedwa. When driving home from work she was approached.
Fedwa : A taxi just came nearby me and the car I was in was forced to stop, then a man came and he talked to me and said, ‘Look, Doctor, this is last warning to you, you either listen to what we are saying or you will not be in this world again, you will be vanished, we will kill you.’ So I went back home, I was so frightened, I told my husband, ‘Look, we must tell the police of what has happened.’ So next day I went to the court, I was just trying to make a report of what happened, and on my way back supposedly there was a car just following me, and it came near to the car I was in and the man in it started shooting, shooting heavily the taxi. And thanks God it was a crowded street so he couldn’t continue, and I thought ‘Oh my God, I’ll be killed, I’ll be killed’ because I know lots of people, my colleagues and friends, who were killed in this way and simpler than this way. And I’m responsible for my family and my girls were young and I don’t want to lose my life for nothing.
Erica Vowles: Fedwa went home, packed her bags and she and her family left for Jordan. After a couple of tough years working illegally in Amman, Fedwa and her family got visas to come to Australia. But she remains broken-hearted about what she had to leave behind in Baghdad.
Fedwa : Look, all my life I was looking for a decent, nice looking, equipped clinic to work in, and when I get it I was kicked out, I was kicked out, and later I was told it was smashed, no one was doing the work and they returned back to the zero line where they started…yeah.”
It should be noted that even though Fedwa was working for the good of all Iraqis, she still was threatened with death. Ordinary Iraqis who could have benefitted from her dream will suffer because of fanatic and senseless hatred.
What should America do? Immigration quotas are broken down by nationality. They do not distinguish between minorities like Mandaeans and Christians who are persecuted for their faith. Mandaean applications for refugee status should get the highest possible priority. Their need to establish religious infrastructure in new homes should be respected. Those who wish to help this besieged community can contact the Mandaean Associations Union for information on how best to help this besieged people.
The Mandaeans provide a living piece of the puzzle of what the world was like at the time Christianity was born. Their loss to history would be a loss of a piece of humanity’s link to the past. In any case, a greater gift to the world than democracy itself is freedom of belief and disbelief. Wherever they may find themselves, the scattered and besieged Mandaeans deserve our prayers and support.