Sabian sect keeps the faith

Baghdad, Iraq - Dressed in gleaming white robes, a small group of Sabians gathered on a Sunday afternoon to wash away their sins — and to forget about the problems facing Iraq and the followers of their ancient religion.

The Sabians belong to a centuries-old sect that follows the teachings of John the Baptist but is neither Muslim nor Christian. Flowing water plays a symbolic role in their faith, and several people were baptized at the recent ceremony, including three couples who were getting married.

Long famed in Iraq as jewelers and gold merchants, the Sabians describe themselves as pacifists — which leaves them especially vulnerable in today's climate of sectarian warfare. Even the white color of their robes is meant to symbolize peace.

"Our religion has no tribal background that protects us from violence, so when the government becomes weak, we can't protect ourselves," says Uday Asa'ad Khamas, a spokesman for Sabians in Iraq, a local group.

The Sabians are one of the oldest groups in the Mesopotamia region, but their numbers in Iraq have dwindled from about 40,000 before the U.S. invasion to fewer than 10,000 now, Khamas says. About 57 Sabians have been killed since February of last year, he says, many by sectarian militias who seek to occupy their homes.

There is only one Sabian sheik left in Baghdad who conducts baptisms on Sundays. The ceremonies used to take place in the Tigris River but have been moved to a pool inside the church for security reasons, Khamas says.

The group was persecuted under Saddam Hussein's regime, which forced many Sabian women to be wives for Muslim men, says Raed Hassoun, a Sabian journalist for Iraqi television. He says the group became even more of a target after Saddam was deposed, forcing many of his friends and relatives to flee the country.

"The extremists consider us infidels, despite the fact our religion is very close to Islam and we even use Muslim names," says Ghassan Kareem, 27, who runs a computer shop in Baghdad.

Other Iraqis tend to believe Sabians are wealthy, which has posed added problems, Kareem says. "My father was a goldsmith," he says, "but he died a long time ago, and I paid the price for that. These militias kidnapped me in the middle of the day and I got treated like an animal."

The militias asked for a $100,000 ransom — unusually high for Iraq — believing, incorrectly, that Kareem's family was still wealthy. With great difficulty, his relatives were able to gather $30,000, and Kareem was released.

"The good thing is I am still alive, because in most cases even when you pay, you get killed," Kareem says.

Many in the group have started going by names that are both Sunni and Shiite in origin, hoping to avoid being targeted at illegal checkpoints erected by sectarian militias around Baghdad.

Some Sabians have moved to the northern Kurdistan region, where security is much better. Those who remain in Baghdad seek comfort in their faith and try to find companionship when they gather on Sundays.

"Like any other sect in Iraq, the Sabians live the good times and the bad times together," Hassoun says.