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Little-known faith suffers from Iraq war

April 14, 2007, The Associated Press, Little-known faith suffers from Iraq war, By Chris Newmarker.

Among the casualties of the Iraq war is a little-known religious faith called Mandaeanism that has survived roughly two millennia and whose adherents believe that John the Baptist was their great teacher.

While there were more than 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq in the early 1990s, only about 5,000 to 7,000 remain. Many have fled amid targeted killings, rapes, forced conversions, and property confiscation by Islamic extremists, according to a report released last week by the New Jersey-based Mandaean Society of America.

Among the roughly 1,500 U.S. Mandaeans, there have been continual phone calls with friends and relatives, collections of money, and lobbying efforts in Washington to get Mandaeans out of Iraq, as well as neighboring Jordan and Syria.

"Unfortunately, we're not big in numbers, and numbers talk," said Dr. Suhaib Nashi, a 53-year-old pediatrician who helps run the Mandaean Society of America out of his home.

Mandaean leaders say tens of thousands of their brethren are now scattered around the world, including a U.S. community centered on New York and Detroit.

With the dispersion comes concern that the faith is withering, especially as more Mandaeans marry non-Mandaeans, with no mechanism to bring their children into the fold.

"There's not much hope for us to survive to two or three generations," Nashi said.

Scholars who study the Mandaean culture say its extinction would be a great loss, the end of an ancient religious movement. Dating to the time of the Roman Empire, it survived primarily in what is today Iraq and Iran, a branch of the Gnostic movement that borrowed elements of Christianity.

Mandaeans view John the Baptist as a great teacher, and engage in baptisms to come in closer contact with a "world of light" that is better than the material world on Earth.

"It represents a slice of the culture of the Middle East before the rise of Islam. And frankly, we don't know very much about it," said Charles G. Haberl, an instructor in Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University.

Haberl, who says he's trying to arrange a reprint of one of the Mandaeans' main holy books for the first time in about 150 years, laments that an "enormous literary tradition" may soon entirely disappear.

Driven from both Iraq and Iran, many Mandaeans have adapted to their new homes, enjoying financial success as medical doctors, civil engineers and jewelers, Nashi said.

Being scattered means that many find spouses outside the community. Since a Mandaean has to be born a Mandaean, the children of such marriages have a questionable status in the religion.

Meanwhile, the few thousand Mandaeans still living in Iraq are finding their lives increasingly in danger, targeted by extremists of every political stripe and religious faith.

Nashi said a cousin on his father's side, Suhail Jani Sahar, was killed by Shiite fighters in November. A more distant cousin on his mother's side, Yahya Al-Chuhaily, was killed by Sunnis in June.

Thousands of Mandaeans, they said, have taken refuge in Jordan and Syria but are still suffering abuses, with no easy way to escape to countries such as the United States, where they would be safe.

Jorunn Buckley, an assistant professor of religion at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, has studied Mandaeans for decades and has testified for them in U.S. immigration courts. She said the United States could do much more to get Mandaeans out of the Middle East.

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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