Across the world, exiled Mandaeans perform their baptism rites far from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers
Jordan's Mandaean minority fear returning to post-ISIS Iraq
On a recent Sunday, a group of 40 men wearing long white robes and turbans gathered around a stagnant pond in the Jordan Valley. They were there to re-enact the rite of baptism that John the Baptist performed on Jesus two millennia ago.
The men are exiled Iraqi Sabean Mandaeans, a tiny ethnoreligious group whose origins trace back to the riverbanks of ancient Mesopotamia. Presiding over the baptism is their leader, Tarmida Nethan Kremdi Al Sabbahi.
Mandaeans share with Christians and Muslims a reverence for John the Baptist, but venerate him as a leading prophet, basing their beliefs on their holy text, the Ginza Rabba, “the great treasury”. And in the Mandaean religion, flowing water plays a central role in both ritual and faith. But their esoteric religion is often misunderstood, which has led to persecution in their homeland.
Filmed by his two sons, Nethan Al Sabti is one of the first to be blessed. After praying three times on the shore, Mr Al Sabti is called into the water. Blessed by Mr Al Sabbahi, he is dipped several times in the water, and then drinks from the pond.
Once a prosperous family of jewellers in southeastern Maysan province, the Al-Sabtis left Iraq for Amman in 2017.
Until 2003, nearly all of the world’s estimated 60,000 Mandaeans lived in communities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the tributaries flowing into the Shatt Al Arab in southern Iraq, with the largest population centred in Baghdad. The Mandaens were known as skilled goldsmiths, and their communities prospered.
In the vacuum left by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, minorities were vulnerable to the violence and lawlessness that enveloped Iraq. As sectarian militias formed to protect communities, minorities without their own gunmen were vulnerable. The Mandaeans, with their obvious source of wealth, stood out as targets.
“People always hated Mandaeans, but they couldn't do anything to us during Saddam’s reign because there was a government and a strong army," Mr Al Sabti said. "After 2003, we were not safe anymore. Only the militias reigned. We couldn't turn to anyone to ensure our security.”
In northern Iraq, Kurdish “Peshmerga” militias insulated the Kurdistan Region from much of Iraq’s violence. In southern and central Iraq, men from Shiite and Sunni communities took up arms, first to resist the American invaders, and then to fight a bloody civil war. Later when ISIS overran much of Iraq in 2014, directing much of their genocidal violence against Christian, Turkmen, Shabak and Yazidi minorities, those groups all formed their own militias.
But pacifism has always been a tenet of Mandaean faith, leaving the group largely defenceless against criminal extortion and kidnap gangs. “Our religion forbids us to kill, steal, cheat,” said Tarmida Mustapha Najim Luaa’bee, one of the 54 Mandaean priests in the world. Speaking from his house in the Al Hashmi Al Shamali district of Amman, where the majority of Jordan’s Mandaean diaspora live, the 31-year-old explained how that prohibition prevents his people from taking up arms. “Even when someone attacks us, we have no right to defend ourselves.”
Between 2003 and 2009 – the most dangerous years for Iraq’s Mandaeans – 163 members of the community were murdered and 271 kidnapped, according to a report by the Mandaean Associations Union. “Shiite militias engaged in criminal activity such as kidnappings of Mandaeans in order to finance their competition with other militias,” said Dave van Zoonen, an independent researcher who has written on the Mandaeans.
In the face of such persecution, most Mandaeans chose to leave. Today, fewer than 5,000 still live in Iraq, with the rest scattered across the world. About 1,400 live in Jordan, 10,500 in Sweden, 10,000 in Australia, and 8,000 in North America.
“We cannot go back," said Mr Al Sabti, who is 37 years old. "Our province is still held by Shiite militias. If we go home, they'll kill us.”
Last year, masked men broke into Mr Al Sabti’s jewellery shop. The gunmen smashed the counter and threatened to kill the family, Mr Al Sabti said. “We were all very scared, wondering what was going to be next,” he added.
Even today, with the war against ISIS largely over, and security across the country the best it has been since 2003, Mandaeans fear to return to Iraq. “Protecting minorities has never been a priority for the Iraqi government," Ibrahim Al Marashi, an associate professor of Iraqi history at the California State University San Marcos, told The National. "Even if they wanted to, Iraq doesn't have the resources or even the capability to carry out this kind of protection.”
Far from Iraq, Mandaeans are struggling to maintain their religious customs, which are intrinsically linked to their proximity to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. In Australia, Mandaeans worship in the Nepean River in Western Sydney. But practicing their faith in unfamiliar countries can result in misunderstanding.
Last year, Mr Luaa’bee was arrested by a policeman while praying in the Jordan river. “Because of the beard, he thought I was ISIS,” said Mr Luaa’bee.
To prevent further misunderstandings, the exiled Mandaean community in Amman rents a private lake to conduct their ceremonies. Limited funding means their baptism rituals have become less frequent though, and the longer their displacement lasts, the more they say they are losing their roots.
"If the exile continues, we will become Swedish, Australian, American and Jordanian Mandaeans – but not Iraqi anymore," said Mr Luaa’bee.