Iraqi Mandeans adapt to avoid extinction

Haunted by years of violence and persecution in Iraq, many members of this ancient religious community have gone into exile and will likely never return.

Illustration Ivan Debs

Amer Dagher Aofi has not been back to Iraq since December 2013 when his house near Fallujah was bombed and then attacked by the Islamic State (IS). "When it happened, even my neighbors came to loot me,” he says. Like tens of thousands of other Mandaeans, Aofi was forced into exile. But the exodus began long before the emergence of IS.

The Mandaean community exists on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border, and in 2009 they were given official status as a religious group in Iran. But in Iraq, segregation is their only option. When IS launched its offensive in western Iraq in January 2014, the jihadists gave the Mandaeans two choices: conversion or death. At the time, dozens of families living near the front line, which stretched from Iraqi Kurdistan in the north to the Nineveh Plain in the west, did not have time to flee.

As Ramadi, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib fell to IS, Mandaeans were kidnapped, raped and murdered. The pillage by IS was the crescendo of decades of persecution. Now, experts believe that the Mandaeans have almost entirely disappeared from northern Iraq. Only a few dozen remain, displaced in Kirkuk and Baghdad.

The situation in the rest of the country is almost as dire. In the early 1990s, there were an estimated 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq. Now, that number has fallen to only 400 families. Meanwhile, there are somewhere between 10,000 and 80,000 members of the community worldwide, although accurate numbers are hard to come by.

The Mandaeans are disciples of John the Baptist, and their ancestral homeland is on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. "Their ritual is to receive baptism once a week by immersing themselves in the water of the rivers,” Claire Lefort, an anthropologist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, tells L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ). "Because of successive persecutions, the Mandaeans have acquired the reflex of not getting involved in politics to survive."

Many in Iraq treat members of the Mandaean community as outsiders because men are not circumcised. And the community speaks aramaic, an ancient language that is only spoken by a handful of people across the region.

"Forbidden to carry weapons"

In an increasingly sectarian Iraq, Shiite militias control much of the southern half of the country from Baghdad to Basra. Fearing their ruthlessness, the Mandaeans have no choice but to live in the shadows. "For now, I practice my religious rituals out of sight," Youssef, a 24 year-old living in Baghdad, tells OLJ. "In recent years I have avoided exposing myself to extremist groups or armed factions.”

The community is subject to daily persecution and has witnessed large scale attacks on their villages, but the Mandaeans won’t resort to self-defense. "We are easy targets, and our religion also forbids us to carry weapons," says Suhaib Nashi, a Mandaean who fled Iraq 25 years ago.

In 2015, a young Mandaean named Nowar Hussein Rathi was kidnapped, tortured and killed, even after his family paid a $50,000 ransom to his Shiite captors. Stories like Rathi’s are all too common, according dozens of documents reviewed by OLJ that detailed kidnappings and targeted assassinations. Even the community’s stronghold of Al-Amarah, near the border with Iran, isn’t safe, and only around 80 families remain in the city.

Today, Nashi, who led the Mandaean Associations Union for many years, lives in New Jersey but stays updated with information about the community. "It's even worse than being persecuted. We've always been treated like second-class citizens," he tells OLJ. "I remember when I was still in Iraq, under Saddam (Hussein), there was the case of this girl who was raped at the age of fifteen. The judge, whom her father went to see, exhorted her to marry her rapist to wash away her heathen Mandaean beliefs."

"Second-class citizens" under Saddam

Scarcely known to the rest of the world, Saddam Hussein forced the community to make their sacred book, called the Great Treasure, public in the 1970s. Once their beliefs became known, they were immediately marginalized by the rest of the Iraqi population. "In addition to being sidelined, others envy them because of their strong presence in schools and universities, a tradition for their community," Lefort, the École Normale Supérieure professor, explains.

Many Mandaeans became renowned literary figures and scientists, but ended up running afoul of the Iraqi government. Abdul Jabbar Abdullah, one example, was the first Iraqi to graduate with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. He later became the first president of Baghdad University in 1959, but was pushed out of the post several years later. "My father was sent to a concentration camp and then to prison where he was tortured by the Baath party," his son, Thabit Abdullah, tells OLJ. "In the hope of being integrated into Iraqi society, the Mandaeans had embraced the Arab identity, starting with the language. But nationalism faded in favor of sectarianism in the last years of the Saddam regime,” he added.

As Iraq descended into chaos after the US invasion, "it was predictable that the Mandaeans would be slaughtered,” says Charles Häberl, a professor at Rutgers University specializing in Mandaean history.

Sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations after the Gulf War made living conditions in the country more difficult, and Saddam Hussein began in the 1990s to increasingly use sectarianism to control his opponents. As tensions between different communities flared, the Mandaeans quickly became a target, and not just because of their religious beliefs. The community, renowned as the best goldsmiths in the Middle East, was relatively prosperous, even as the rest of Iraqi society suffered the effects of the Oil-for-Food program in the 1990s. That’s when their homes and businesses began to be targeted and looted.

Exile, the only hope?

A year after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the much lauded victory over the Islamic State, there has been a gradual return of minority Christian and Yazidi communities to the Nineveh Plain. But only a few Mandaeans have come back. "Since the US occupation of Iraq, the Mandaeans have had no choice but to flee sectarianism and seek peace and security to practice their religion in other countries," says Youssef, the young Mandaean in Baghdad, who has seen his brothers leave Iraq one by one over the past few years.

Some of the organizations financing the reconstruction of Iraq still hope to reconcile the different religious communities in the country. To that end, Chaldean Christians founded a multi-faith school for Mandaean, Christian, Sunni and Shiite students. The stakes for success are high, and significant damage to inter-community relations has already been done. "We must ensure that young people grow together. It is possible to build bridges between communities so there is peace. But for the current generations, it's already too late ... That's why they leave," says Ghislain de Franqueville, a spokesperson for the NGO Fraternity in Iraq.

Jordan is often the first stop for Mandaeans fleeing Iraq. The country has welcomed more than 300 families, but the welcome is far from warm. The Makani center in the Hashimi Al-Shamali neighborhood of Amman takes care of 100 children from the community. "We usually put them in separate classes because of their religion,” Osam Alhamad, a UNICEF Jordan program leader, tells OLJ.

Outside these centers, Mandaean children are not allowed to go to public school before the age of ten and the Jordanian government does not grant them asylum or a work permit. In search of a better life, tens of thousands sought asylum in Australia, Sweden or the United States, sometimes to no avail.

Ayed Nezzal Khalif al-Kohaili was forced to return to Iraq after his asylum application was denied in Sweden. On June 25th, 2014, he was shot dead in front of his shop in Mahmoudiya, a town south of Baghdad.

"They lose their identity"

"Getting asylum is not easy. To enter the United States, Mandaeans must first seek asylum in Mexico,” according to Häberl, the Rutgers professor.

The 2,000 or so Mandaeans who crossed the Rio Grande mainly live in San Diego, CA and San Antonio, TX. But some have also made it to New York and Detroit. "Their rites are threatened in the diaspora," says Häberl.

One barrier to continuing their traditions is the difficulty in finding priests, who must only have Mandaean ancestors stretching back for more than seven generations. "It was not until 1999 that a priest came to Boston to administer the first Mandaean baptism in the United States," Häberl adds.

To avoid disappearing, the Mandaean diaspora has had to adapt. Without access to traditional temples, or "mandis", members of the community who live in the United States and Canada now meet once a year at the edge of a river to perform their rituals together. "Here, we are fortunate not to be the only ones to practice baptism: there are also Jews and Baptists ... Next year, we will inaugurate our 23rd camp," says Nashi, the former leader of the Mandaean Associations Union. "It's thanks to social networks and chain mail that we are all able to keep in touch.”

Faced with the community’s dispersion, in recent years the Mandaean religious authorities have authorized the construction of special pools for performing baptisms in places where rivers are not an option. Two pools have already been built, one in Sweden and one in Holland. Another one is already being planned for the United States and will probably be located in Detroit.

Mandaeans traditionally marry within their religion. “Being in the diaspora, they have no choice but to open up,” Häberl says. And there have been some cases of conversions and mixed marriages.

But despite the optimism about the capacity of the Mandaeans to adapt to exile, not everyone is so confident. Thabit Abdullah sees the changes as a betrayal of Mandaean tradition. Exile, he says, is “cultural extermination… As time passes, I have the feeling that Mandaeans do not adapt well to being away from their roots. They are too scattered. They lose their identity.”

(This article was originally published in French on the 3rd of December 2018 in L'Orient-Le Jour)

Amer Dagher Aofi has not been back to Iraq since December 2013 when his house near Fallujah was bombed and then attacked by the Islamic State (IS). "When it happened, even my neighbors came to loot me,” he says. Like tens of thousands of other Mandaeans, Aofi was forced into exile. But the exodus began long before the emergence of IS. The Mandaean community exists on both sides of the Iran-Iraq...