Iraq’s most ancient sect in need of protection to escape extinction

Baghdad, Iraq - One of Iraq’s most ancient sects is on its way to become extinct after nearly 2,000 years of existence.

The Mandeans, the world’s only surviving representatives of Gnosticism, have been living in southern Iraq since the 1st century A.D. But their existence is under serious threat.

Prior to the U.S. invasion, more than 30,000 lived in Iraq, mainly along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries.

“We fear for our lives particularly following several fatwas in which we are denied the status of the People of the Book,” said Sheikh Sattar al-Hilou, the Mandeans’ chief in Iraq.

The term ‘the People of the Book’ refers to non-Muslims who have been accorded special protection under Islamic Jurisprudence. The Koran calls them Ahl al-Kitab, a term, which besides Christians and Jews has historically covered the Mandeans.

Religious militias are using these fatwas, or religious decrees, against the Mandeans to force them to enter Islam, Hilou said.

He said he was not aware of anyone of his people converting to Islam despite threats of death.

“As a result more than 22,000 of my community have fled the country,” he added.

He warned the Mandeans would cease to exist as the country’s most ancient sect if the government fails to protect them.

The Mandeans are called in Iraq Subbas and for centuries they have been Iraq’s best goldsmiths and canoe makers.

They are strongly pacifist and are not known to have ever resorted to violence.

Former leader Saddam Hussein was very fond of the sect and had constructed a modern shrine for the Mandeans on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.

The sect’s rituals, all of great antiquity, cannot be performed without flowing water, hence their preference to live close to rivers and streams.

Hilou said he believed less than 8,000 Mandeans were still living in Iraq and most of them away from their ancestral habitat.

The Mandeans have extensive religious literature. Most important are their Ginza Raba (Great Treasure) and Drasha ed Yahia (Book of John).

John the Baptist is their most revered saint and they date their religion to him but historians believe their faith is of much older antiquity.