Religious sect fears extinction in Iraq

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ERBIL, Iraq — Humam Abdel Jabar sits on a bench in a friend’s jewelry shop. Shoulders hunched, head down, he nervously plays with his fingers while recounting a tale of kidnapping and torture that is familiar to many Iraqis.
In April, “four armed men wearing face masks came at 8 o’clock at night and broke down the door of my house,” the tall, dark-eyed man with a full moustache wearily recounts.

They shoved him into a car trunk and drove to a nearby house, then blindfolded and bound him.

Jabar stares at the floor. “They beat me and terrorized me. They used a water hose … punched and pushed me.”

He points to scars on his face and shoulders.
“They said, ‘You are an infidel, and this is an Islamic state. Either you pay the jiziyah (a tax that Islamic governments once levied on non-Muslims) or it is hallal (religiously sanctioned) to kill you.’ ”

The kidnappers demanded that the goldsmith pay a $100,000 ransom.

“If you do not give us this, how would you like to be killed — by shooting or beheading?” they asked him. “We will send your head back to your family in a bag.”

Jabar, 42, belongs to the Mandaeans, a tiny religious sect that survived for 2,000 years in Iraq and Iran. Now scattered by Iraq’s bloodshed, its leaders fear the sect will disappear.

Not Jews, Christians or Muslims, Mandaeans venerate John the Baptist in rituals revolving around water. Their religious leaders still speak a dialect of Aramaic that is closest to that of the Babylonian Talmud.

“They are one of a variety of groups that appeared around the same time as Christianity … offering alternative interpretations — in the case of the Mandaeans, one that scholars have identified as Gnostic,” explains Nathaniel Deutsch, a Mandaean expert at Swarthmore College. “The Mandaeans are the one community … that still survives from this period, and that is extraordinary.”

Traditionally tight-knit and well-educated, Mandaeans often work as jewelers or goldsmiths. Before 2003, their numbers were estimated at 50,000 to 60,000, with 25,000 in Iraq and 10,000 in Iran. Today, less than 5,000 remain in central and southern Iraq, their leaders say; the rest fled to Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq and to Syria, Jordan, Yemen or the West.

Thirty-two families live in Suleimaniyah, the Kurdish region’s second-largest city; 120 are in Erbil, the north’s capital.

“We will vanish in 20 years’ time — there will be no Mandaean people anymore,” predicts Abdelkarim Malallah, a Mandaean leader who fled to Suleimaniyah.

He kisses the Ginza Raba (“Big Treasure”), a two-sided holy book reflecting the Mandaean view of the world as light and dark.

After Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed, Malallah volunteered as a translator for U.S. military police.

“I loved them — they liberated us,” he says.

His euphoria evaporated as the pacifist Mandaeans became easy targets for criminals or Shia and Sunni extremists.

“Most of us have been attacked and kidnapped, and we ran away,” Mallah says. He was robbed and his family threatened repeatedly until they fled to Suleimaniyah.

Mandaeans often associate with Christians, seeking the protection of a larger religion. In Erbil, most live in the Christian enclave of An-Kowah, swollen with Iraqi Christians who fled sectarian violence in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

In the winding, narrow alleys of Erbil’s souq, goldsmiths hawk jewelry. Hamudi Mutasher Al-Hallali opened his gold jewelry store here last fall after being kidnapped in January and again in August 2006.

Al-Hallali, 65, has graying short hair and a moustache. He puts on wire bifocals and reads a hand-written business ledger while negotiating prices with a Kurdish trader.

Later, he ticks off the reasons Mandaeans are targeted.

“Most of us work with gold, so they see us as having a lot of money,” the father of seven says. “The number of Mandaeans is small. We don’t believe in owning weapons or fighting … we don’t have guns in our houses.”

“Even if I have a doctorate, I am not permitted to work with Muslims because they consider us infidels,” he says.

Because Mandaeans wear hooded white robes during their religious ceremonies, they are easily spotted, he says. Mandaean woman do not wear head scarves and are easily targeted among Muslims.

More Mandaeans gather in the little gold shop, talking about kidnappings and how they raise the large ransoms in their small community. Al-Hillali recalls his first kidnapping, by Sunni extremists. Blindfolded and bound, he said he was badly beaten — but a Shia in the room was killed.

“I could hear them behead him and I smelt the blood — it was really bad,” he says, shivering and shaking his head.

Muslims refer to Mandaeans as Sabians, who the Prophet Muhammed declared to be a protected people.

“We are mentioned three times in the Quran, and despite this they still call us infidels and tell us to convert,” says Wameeth Abdelraheem, 21.

Jabar was freed after relatives raised $50,000. Afterward, he moved his family to Erbil.

Still showing physical and mental scars from his ordeal, he worries about his faith’s future. “In Iraq, we were all in one place,” he says. “Now we are scattered.”

Al-Hallali worries, too, especially about Mandaeans in Syria and Jordan.

“We ask President Bush to take half a minute to think about the conditions of those Mandaean refugees,” he says. “… America has to provide us minorities with a secure place to live.

“We are the oldest monotheistic religion in Iraq. Isn’t George Bush a religious man?”

Betsy Hiel is a Middle East correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She can be reached at