Sabean Mandeans Keep Faith in Dangerous Land

sheik reads during a ceremony

Sheik Abdul Salam Jabbar reads at a ceremony for three couples getting married in a Sabean Madean ceremony. Abdulla Mizead hide caption

itoggle caption Abdulla Mizead
Cleric

A cleric prepares for a Sabean Madean marriage ceremony. Abdulla Mizead hide caption

itoggle caption Abdulla Mizead
couple

A couple, dressed entirely in white cotton, prepares for their marriage ceremony. Abdulla Mizead hide caption

itoggle caption Abdulla Mizead

Shia and Sunnis, Iraq's two main religious groups, dominate all aspects of the country. But Iraq also is home to a number of religious minorities, some whose traditions date back a millennia or more. Among them are the Sabean Mandeans, a sect that follows John the Baptist and believes water is the essence of life.

In an open square in central Baghdad, two sets of stairs lead down to the waters of the Tigris River. Cleric Salim Daoud climbs the stairs, his wooden slippers scuffing the stone. On this day, three couples in the Sabean Mandean community were married, and everything, says Daoud, must be purified in running water.

"When you baptize in the river, you purify your body, and you ask God for forgiveness," Daoud says. "Water is the basis of life. We always pray, purify our bodies in running water, and then we perform our religious rituals."

The newlywed couples, dressed entirely in white cotton, emerge from behind a stand of palm trees as female relatives ululate. Sheik Abdul Salam Jabbar presides over the ceremony.

"Our rituals are simple and natural. Our plates are made of clay, not china or glass, silver or gold," Sheik Jabbar says. "At the time of Adam, there were no plates of copper or metal, only clay. Our houses are made of reeds."

The Sabean Mandeans consider Adam their prophet, and they venerate John the Baptist. Sheikh Jabbar says his people have lived in Iraq for thousands of years and they have always faced persecution. And now, he says, Iraq is passing through even more dangerous times.

"There is fear. But the Lord protects us," Sheikh Jabbar says. He bows his head, his long, brown beard touching his chest. "We might talk about democracy, brotherhood and forgiveness. Yes, this exists. But the other side also exists. And the other side is extreme and powerful. In some areas the Sabeans are not allowed to perform their rituals. It's insulting!"

Sabean Mandeans are, for the most part, well-educated professionals — engineers, doctors, gold and silversmiths. This makes them desirable targets for Iraq's many kidnapping rings because they're perceived as well-off but weak, with no militia to protect them. Sheik Jabbar also says there's no one in parliament that represents them, and that they're being forced from their homes and made to pay tributes to fanatical Islamist groups.

"The state should protect us," Sheik Jabbar says. "The problem is the state is weak and cannot protect itself. So we live by God's grace and by our tolerance of society. Nothing more, nothing less."

Most of Iraq's Sabean Mandeans are trying to leave. Many have already fled to the relative safety of the Kurdish north, but they say it's expensive there and hard to find jobs. Others are applying for refugee status in the West. Cleric Salim Daoud says that those who can't afford to leave endure ignorance and intolerance every day.

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