Dispersed by violence, an ancient community struggles to survive
Taylor Luck; 20/11/09
No matter how hard he tries, Baha Abu Kareem can’t get priests off his mind. The Iraqi east Amman resident has not been able to pray for over two years, and his community seems to be “lost” without spiritual guidance, he said. If he cannot secure a priest within the next two months, his son’s upcoming wedding to an Iraqi woman in Finland, which would also allow him citizenship in the European Union, is in danger. Abu Kareem is one of the Sabian Mandaeans, followers of a Gnostic religion that began in the Levant before migrating to southern Mesopotamia, modern-day Basra, in the first century AD. After 2,000 years in neighbouring Iraq, thousands of Mandaeans have returned to Jordan, this time as refugees fleeing from violence, kidnappings and forced conversions. Left with no priest, no livelihoods and little hope, the followers of this ancient faith said their community is facing extinction on the very banks of the Jordan River where it was born… According to Mandaeans residing in Jordan, life in Iraq was difficult for them during the Saddam Hussein regime, under which the minority was forced to pay bribes, forcibly conscripted into the army and forbidden from teaching Mandaic, an ancient language related to Aramaic. Many within the community were hopeful of their future following the US-led invasion in 2003, and many took jobs with the American military and contractors. “We thought things were going to improve,” said Abu Kareem, who serves as the representative of Mandaeans in Jordan. “We were wrong.”
Mandaeism or Mandaeanism ,… is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic worldview. Its adherents, the Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist. Mandaeism has historically been practiced primarily around the lower Euphrates and Tigris and the rivers that surround the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, part of southern Iraq and Khuzestan Province in Iran. There are thought to be between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide, and until the 2003 Iraq war, almost all of them lived in Iraq. Most Iraqi Mandaeans have since fled the country under the threat of violence by other Iraqis and the turmoil of the war. By 2007, the population of Iraqi Mandaeans had fallen to approximately 5,000. Most Iraqi Mandaeans now live in Syria and Jordan, with smaller populations in Sweden, Australia, the United States, and other Western countries. The Mandaeans have remained separate and intensely private—what has been reported of them and their religion has come primarily from outsiders, particularly from the Orientalists J. Heinrich Petermann, Nicholas Siouffi, and Lady Drower.