- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

BAGHDAD — The end of the Iraq war brought long-awaited news for the Mandeans, an obscure religious sect that follows the teachings of John the Baptist and takes a somewhat dim view of Christ and Muhammad, though it respects all religions.

Documents recovered from the vaults of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provided answers for what happened to 69 of the sect’s members who disappeared. They were executed. A mass funeral laid their souls to rest Aug. 8.

The Mandeans, or Sabeans as they are known in Iraq, are still awaiting news of 73 others, all of whom disappeared during the 35 years Saddam’s Ba’ath Party was in power. It’s a paltry number compared to what other groups have lost to political violence in Iraq, but when you are among 20,000 like-minded believers, each one counts, said Alaa Dhlh Kamar, the spokesman for the church in Baghdad.

The U.S.-led war exacted its own toll — 31 Mandeans died in the bombing of Baghdad, 13 of them in a single house, Mr. Kamar said.

Despite the losses, which are felt grievously, it is a great relief for the Mandeans to be free of Saddam. The regime made a big show of allowing the Mandeans to practice their religion unfettered, as they were considered “people of the book” — actually mentioned in the Koran — but Mr. Kamar said it was just that, show.

“We practice freely in the public media only,” he said.

The Mandeans were regularly visited by the international media as it trouped through prewar Baghdad. Their unusual baptismal ritual — often performed weekly, with the adherents in flowing white robes — and multiple simultaneous weddings made for good television and good public relations for the regime, which systematically slaughtered Kurds, Shi’ites and political opponents.

Publicly the Mandeans played along. Mandeans “presented sacrifices and martyrs for the sake of their homeland like any other group. The Mandeans are still ready to defend their country and are proud of their love of home and its ancient civilization, seeking to maintain its unity and their territorial integrity,” the group declared on its Web site in 1999 while under the thumb of the regime.

In truth, Mr. Kamar said, the Mandeans are pacifists. Their religion does not allow them to take human life, no matter the reason. Thus, he said, they should not be in the military.

“The prophet John left us so many words of instructions, which we have lived with for 2,000 years,” Mr. Kamar said. “He left something we appreciate, which is ‘My sons, be peaceful.’ We don’t believe in killing or fighting.”

The religion will have a hard time recovering from 40 years of oppression.

Under Saddam, the Mandeans were not allowed to have schools to teach their children the ancient Aramaic in which their sacred texts are written.

It doesn’t help their fortunes that it is impossible to convert to Mandeanism, said Mr. Kamar. Further, Mandeans may marry out of the religion, but no one may marry into it.

It also doesn’t help that their requirements for the faith’s leadership, a position similar to that of the Roman Catholic pope, are so stringent that the position went unfilled for several years because none of their priests could meet the standards.

Because the Mandeans refused to join Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, they were blocked from well-paid government positions and depend on donations from other countries to keep their doors open. Though John the Baptist preached in Jordan, early Mandeans were forced to leave Jordan and settled in Iraq around A.D. 67.

“This is God’s will, but in my own view, if we had known how we would have suffered here, they should have changed the place,” Mr. Kamar said.

Mandeans, the oldest continuous gnostic sect, believe it is possible to know God through study and reason, rather than just faith.

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