First Published: 2003-04-26

Sabean Mandeans pray for peace in Iraq

On banks of Tigris, Sabeans praying for suffering in war, for future Iraq that must retake path of unity, democracy.


Middle East Online

By Beatriz Lecumberri - BAGHDAD

The origins of the Sabean Mandeans are disputed

Just off the banks of the Tigris River in the heart of Baghdad's old city lies the temple of Sabean Mandeans, a tiny community that despite its reclusiveness has been hit hard by the war.

In a rite of purification, Sabean Mandeans with long beards, white tunics and rustic sandals immersed themselves up to their waists in water.

"Thirty-three of our followers were killed in the American air strikes. They were civilians who were at home," temple priest Ala Dehle Kama recalled with clear bitterness.

The dead, he explained, had parted the world without receiving their final baptism, a ritual of utmost significance as it is supposed to bring the follower out of suffering and into the light.

For Kama, the Sabean Mandeans are praying not only for their dead, but for all who suffered in the war, and for a future Iraq that must "retake the path of unity and democracy."

Estimates of the world's Mandean population range anywhere up to 50,000, confined to Iraq and Iran. Along with their enclave in Baghdad, the sect has a presence in the southern Iraqi cities of Nasiriyah and Basra.

The origins of the Sabean Mandeans are disputed. They revere John the Baptist, and some say the man who baptized Jesus Christ was the founder of the faith. Other scholars believe the sect originated as a heretical branch of Judaism that emigrated from Palestine centuries ago.

The Sabean Mandeans themselves view Adam, the first man, as their first prophet.

The word "Mandean" is derived from the Aramaic for "knowledge." Followers say "Sabean" comes from "saba," or the Aramaic for baptize, but the term Sabean is also mentioned in the Muslim holy book the Koran as a people having a religion revealed by God, alongside Christians and Jews.

Over the centuries a variety of religious groups coexisting with Islam have been considered the Koran's Sabeans, particularly faiths in India when it was under Muslim rule.

Iraq's Sabean Mandeans have traditionally been reserved toward foreigners and refrained from speaking to curious journalists about anything other than the faith.

"In the house of God we do not talk about politics," said one follower.

According to Sabean Mandeans here, under Saddam Hussein's 24-year rule they had freedom of religion, but faced injustices.

"We were living under a dictatorship and the people wanted a democracy, that is true," said Adel, one of the worshippers.

"But it wasn't us who toppled this dictatorship, it was the Americans. Now there is no alternative, but we don't want them to stay here," he said.

Despite their humble appearance, many members of the community hold distinguished positions in the capital as jewelers, professors and artists. Many travelled to the temple gates in lush automobiles.

"Our religion has nothing to do with Bush's (Protestantism)," stressed Kama, the priest.

"The rituals are difference, the beliefs don't resemble each other and neither do the worshippers," he said.

On top of the temple's portal rest two branches of an olive tree in the form of a cross, strikingly akin to the branches from which John the Baptist sprinkled holy water.

The image of Sabean Mandean prophet Yahia and the holy book the Ginza adorn the temple.

With water such a central element in the faith, no one at the purification ritual hesitated at drinking it, despite warnings about contamination amid the war-time damage to infrastructure.

"It never gets us sick. Water is the secret of life and purification," said one of the worshippers.

"Where there is no water there can be religion, but without water there can be no religious rituals, no prayers, no food," he said.


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