Vanishing faiths: ISIL pushes minority religions to the brink of extinction

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James Langton
Members of the Sabaean Mandaeans, a pre-Christian sect that follow the teachings of John the Baptist, take part in a bathing ritual on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad to mark the new year, which they celebrate as a five day holiday. Khalid Mohammed / AP Photo
Deep in the marshlands of southern Iraq live what remains of the Mandaean people.

Sometimes confused with Christianity, they are, in fact, an entirely separate faith, while believing in a Supreme Being, baptism and a heaven of light. Some of their customs carry echoes of ancient Babylon.

It was here that Gerald Russell discovered them, in the chaos of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Until 2003 there were perhaps 100,000 Mandaeans, almost all living in their ancestral homeland. In 2006, Russell met the Mandaean high priest, Sheikh Sattar. “He’s gone now,” he says. “Gone to Australia.”

A former British diplomat with a deep knowledge of the region and a fluency in Arabic unusual in Westerners, Russell has spent most of the past seven years visiting and chronicling the more obscure minority religions that for centuries have coexisted alongside Islam.

The result, the newly published Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is not so much a celebration of diversity as an obituary.

Even in 2006: “the Mandaeans were facing very serious problems because of security” says Russell, who is visiting Abu Dhabi this week.

“Obviously Muslims as well as non Muslims suffered in Iraq and pretty much numerically to equal degrees but the insecurity felt by the Mandaeans was greater.”

In part, he says, this is because the tribal system which had protected the Mandaean people in the past could no longer do so in the anarchy that prevailed.

And so the Mandaeans took the only option left to them. They departed. “Once a community takes it upon itself to move, that it wants to migrate there is shift in mentality,” he says. “The Mandaeans are now ten per cent of what they were in 2003.”

As grim is the plight of the Yazidis, another endangered faith whose worship echoes that of Muslims yet is not Islamic. Their morning prayer begins: “There is no god but God” but more emphasis is placed on the four elements, fire, water, earth and air, than the Prophets, from Abraham to Mohammed. Their secrets are passed down, orally, to a chosen few.

The history of the Yazidis is punctuated by oppression and genocide, both from the Ottomans and Saddam, who lumped them together with the Kurds in his killing sprees.

But nothing has hit the community like the depredations of the Islamic state (ISIL). Islamic fundamentalists, who regard aspects of the faith as akin to devil worship, were behind a series of bombings near Mosul that killed 500 in single day.

The world came to know of the Yazidis — probably for the first time — in August, when ISIL fighters forced the population of Singar to abandon the city for the mountains. Thousands may have died, with women and girls sold as slaves for sex.

Only an intervention by Western powers, with air support from countries including the UAE, has stemmed the ISIL advance. But the Yazidi seem destined to follow the path of the Mandaean. Their homeland is in Iraq, Syria and Kurdish territories, but the places where populations are growing include Germany, Australia and Canada.

“ISIL is a particularly thuggish group and its attack on the Yazidis was unusual,” says Russell. “It looks like the literal implementation of the most hardline of attitudes towards non Muslims. That and I think the general anarchy of Syria and Iraq — there’s been huge bloodshed.”

How much of the Yazidi traditions will survive transplantation is unclear. These include a proscription on the colour blue, a ban on eating lettuce and requirement that men should grow a moustache. Despite spending time with the Yazidis, Russell admits he still has no idea why. “No one knows — or they’re not telling. They wouldn’t say.”

The recent history of the Middle East is filled with such stories. Long-established Jewish communities have left Arab countries, with Christians, particularly in Iraq, now under threat.