- - Monday, February 9, 2015



By Gerard Russell

Basic Books, $28.99, 279 pages

With the continuing destabilization of the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State group, non-Muslim populations have undergone severe persecution. So much so, that emigration has caused ancient religions, some germane to biblical studies and some older than Christianity and Islam to disappear from the landscape.

In “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East,” Gerard Russell, senior associate at the Foreign Policy Center in London, presents a historical, geographical and theological guide for such diverse groups as the Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts and the Kalasha. He also follows them to their new homes and portrays the challenges they are facing to preserve their religion and culture.

Two groups make at least cameo appearances in the New Testament; the Zoroastrians in the personae of the Christmas “Magi,” a term used for their priests, and the Samaritans, the erstwhile opponents of Orthodox Judaism, who often appear in Jesus’ ministry.

Zoroastrianism was once the dominant religion of Iraq. Presently, there are less than 10,000 left in Iraq and 50,000 worldwide. The religion was founded around 1000 B.C. by a prophet named Zarathrusta. He taught that the world was formed by a ceaseless struggle between good and evil. Mr. Russell hypothesizes, that this dichotomy influenced Jesus’ parable of an enemy sowing weeds in a wheat field which will be uprooted at the end of time.

The Samaritans, on the other hand, are much more obtrusive in the Gospels. Presently, there are approximately 800 remaining on the West Bank City of Nablus. Their belief that true worship of God takes place on Mount Gerizim puts them in perpetual conflict with the Jews who only worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. They contend that they are the descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel who survived the Assyrian deportation of 729 B.C. Interestingly, DNA testing seems to bear this claim out. Although the Jews and the Samaritans share a common Torah, scholars go so far as to maintain that the Samaritan Torah is more ancient than the Jewish version. And whereas the Jews no longer sacrifice animals since the Temple is long gone, the Samaritans have maintained the ritual sacrifice of lambs in accord with the Book of Exodus by their priests.

There are other groups among the dwindling non-Islamic populations of the Middle East: the Mandeans, the Yazidis, the Druze and the Kalasha. Their esoteric beliefs are pagan at best, and not monotheistic.

Mandaeans promote John the Baptist as being superior to Jesus. They maintain a repeated baptism ritual, practice astrology and cast spells. Mandaeans are dualists who believe that the soul is a captive of matter. Their members now are fewer than 100,000 worldwide.

The Yazidis also number about 100,000 worldwide. The Muslims accuse them of being devil worshippers, though they deny it. They believe in reincarnation, sacrifice bulls and revere an angel who takes the form of a peacock whose name is Satan. However, they justify themselves by the belief that demons are now angels who have been forgiven by God. They hold that both good and evil come from God.

Druze theology is guarded by their priests and most of their adherents are clueless as to their beliefs. They believe in reincarnation, but rebirth takes place only within the community. Because of this, they forbid marriage outside the faith. For them, God is both immanent and transcendent. They believe that the world is a part of God. They have their largest communities in southern Lebanon. The Druze are not trusted by the other people of the region since they have demonstrated constant betrayal of others for political convenience.

The final group is the Kalasha, a small community of about 5,000 who live in the obscurity of the Himalayas. They claim to have an ancestry that can be traced to Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucus, which a 2014 DNA study seems to bear out. They believe in fairies that inhabit the high mountains. Also, they have unusually strict ritualistic demands, especially regarding purity for women. Elders, called guardians, make sure that the community performs the rituals correctly.

The final chapter of the book, “Detroit,” tells of the exodus of these groups mainly to America’s Midwest. Mr. Russell’s data, based on interviews, shows them to be thriving in their new home. But they are fearful of losing their separate identities, which for now is being preserved by their religious beliefs.

The challenge is to help these groups to embrace those liberal values that were not present in the land from whence they came, especially religious freedom and our unity in diversity. From Mr. Russell’s report, there is every reason to believe that they are adapting and will further enrich the beautiful patchwork quilt of American society.

The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is parochial vicar at St. Agnes Church in Naples, Fla.

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