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Gnostic Sect in Iraq Lobbies to Protect Its Way of Life

Times Staff Writer

The bride and groom emerge from the temple to climb down the slopes of a riverbank fetid with garbage, and pause at the water’s edge to pray before wading in.

“Please cleanse my soul of the sins of this material life,” they say. Then they crouch down in the river, bow their heads to accept the cold splashes doled out by their cleric and swallow the river water he dribbles into their mouths.

“Water represents life,” said Sheik Khalef Abed Rabba, spiritual leader of the Baghdad temple of the Mandaean Sabians. “It should be running water, living water.”

For centuries the Mandaean Sabians have clung to the marshes and rivers of Iraq, drawn tight into closed communities while monarchies and tyrannies washed past. The Gnostic sect is so ancient that its roots are lost in the distant blur of the pre-Christian Middle East. Tens of thousands remain today around temples along the trash-strewn banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, facing an uncertain future in a land of upheaval.

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The water came first, they will tell you, and from water flowed everything else: fish and ducks; gold and wisdom. They call themselves “followers of the word of brightness.” Mandaean Sabians claim John the Baptist as their savior, and favor dinners of fish or duck because they believe river-dwelling animals have the cleanest flesh.

When they want to find God, Mandaean Sabians wade into the murky waters, face north and pray in the Aramaic tongue they’ve preserved through the ages. Every Sunday, up and down the length of Iraq, they gather on riverbanks for weddings and to ask forgiveness through baptism in running water.

During Saddam Hussein’s regime, years the Mandaean Sabians spent hunkered in their cloistered communities while their country dried up, water came to represent the many things Iraq was losing.

The regime drained the marshes and dammed the rivers. Mandaean temples were seized by Hussein, and the sect was banned from erecting new houses of worship. Some members were killed.

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But now the marshes are wet again, and the rivers full. This has been Iraq’s rainiest winter in nearly a decade -- and the Mandaean Sabians are hoping for a renaissance.

“The dictator did not allow us to express our religion freely,” said Toma Zeki Zehrun, the Mandaean secretary of affairs in Baghdad. “Now it is time.” A quiet people who preach peace and traditionally shy from authority, the Mandaean Sabians are pushing cannily into politics. They have opened a rudimentary lobbying campaign to protect their rights during Iraq’s political formation and have enlisted spokesmen to meet with political and religious figures.

All the while, they are reminding anybody who will listen that they are a test for Iraq’s nascent government. The quality of Iraq’s democracy will show itself in the protection of its minorities, they argue.

The Mandaean Sabians want permission, never granted under Hussein, to build schools to educate their children in their language. The sect also expects representation in the Iraqi Governing Council and is pushing for a mention in the Iraqi constitution.

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“We would like to fix our religion as a religion of Iraq,” Zeki Zehrun said. “We demand strongly to prove our existence, and to participate in the political process.” But with opportunity comes danger. Mandaean Sabians are vulnerable and isolated in a newly lawless Iraq. Moreover, some Islamists are taking advantage of the demise of the secular regime by leading a sort of vigilante push to impose Islamic code on Iraqi society. Christians and other minorities, including the Mandaean Sabians, have suffered most, especially in the south.

Here in the southern city of Nasiriya, a predominantly Shiite Muslim region, Mandaean Sabians are particularly worried about protecting their weekly baptism rituals. Muslims regard the rites either as charming curiosities or infidel shows of paganism. The sect has been accused of worshipping images, and threats to the Baghdad temple have driven its rituals indoors, away from the river and into the white pools built within the temple walls.

“If we go outside now without veils, they are oppressing us, even chasing us back to our houses,” said 21-year-old Shaena Abdel Salam, a technology student who stood at the edge of the wedding party, clapping eagerly in time to the chants. “They don’t like us. They want us to be Muslims.”

Because the Mandaean Sabians are known as goldsmiths, members of the sect have been targeted by kidnappers and held for ransom. “They think we are rich,” complained Nofel Adel, whose 15-year-old nephew was snatched on his way to school. The family had to scrape together $60,000 to secure his release.

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Sometimes cited as the last continuous Gnostic sect, the Mandaean Sabians stretch in a line of blood -- conversion is frowned upon -- beyond the limits of memory. They may have emerged from what is now Syria, Jordan or Iran, but these days their heartland is Iraq, where the storied old rivers cup the fertile stretches of date palms and mud huts. The sect estimates its numbers as high as 100,000 in Iraq and Iran.

“We are the real and true population of Iraq,” said Abdel Karim Salem, a 46-year-old goldsmith. “We are the history of this land.”

But in modern times, they have learned the art of the chameleon: blend in. The men dress in trousers and sweaters and finger worry beads. The light-adoring sect has banned black clothing, but that doesn’t stop the women from shrouding themselves in black abayas before stepping into the street. Their need to fit in has come to outweigh the literal adherence to religious code.

“We have never felt free,” said Zeki Zehrun. “We have depended on the tempers of the government -- sometimes we’re all right, sometimes not.”

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It has been 50 years since Lady E.S. Drower, a lifelong observer of the Mandaean Sabians, was disturbed by the increasing secularism and dwindling priesthood of the sect. “The writing is on the wall: In 50 years’ time this ancient religion will languish into its death,” she wrote. But the sect is still here.

When quarrels arise, members take their disputes to their internal court, which gathers once a week in Baghdad. When the sweltering summers settle over Iraq, they summon their children to special courses in the Mandaic language.

“Nothing has changed,” said Amal Khaery, the mother of the bride married in Nasiriya, glancing around at the merrymakers. “It’s just like my own wedding, my mother’s wedding and her mother’s wedding.”

It had been one month since Besim Salim, a 29-year-old goldsmith, asked for her daughter’s hand. The 27-year-old bride, Saba Jaber, hunched shyly in her platform shoes and fur coat, clutching a bouquet of silk flowers. The temple rang with voices and clapping as women and children leaped and hooted to the snare of a silver drum. The ululations rang from the rafters.

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Before Jaber could change into her white robes and rope belt for baptism, a pair of matronly women -- including the mother of the groom -- led the bride into the sheik’s office. They would check whether she was “all right,” the congregants whispered knowingly -- whether she was a virgin. The bride’s mother hovered anxiously at the door.

Some minutes later, the women emerged, flushed. The bride was still a virgin, they announced; the wedding could proceed. “We’ve brought this girl, and we’re happy with her,” the dancers shouted. “See the groom, his ankles are dancing.” The women tilted their heads toward the ceiling and hollered with the joy of a new day.

“I expect this life will be a new life,” Khaery said.


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