Gnostic sunset: Strife in Syria and Iraq driving out Mandaeans, the last surviving followers of John the Baptist

Religious violence in the Middle East is driving greater numbers of minorities from the region, depriving it of its once-unique social fabric.

Having fled Iraq’s sectarian strife, Mandaeans – a millennia-old Gnostic religion whose members style themselves the followers of St. John the Baptist – are today being forced out of Syria at the barrel of a gun.

In the last few weeks, Mandaean families have escaped Syria amid a spate of bombings in a district of the capital Damascus that once served as temporary relief from the horrors of life in Iraq.

The dispersal of much of the 60,000-strong Iraqi Mandaean population to Canada, Syria, Australia and elsewhere has put the religion’s very existence in question. Those remaining in Syria are at risk of repeating their fate in Iraq, as the violence there turns increasingly sectarian and Mandaeans are lumped together with Christians by bombers and gunmen.

And because they number so few, Mandaeans can’t turn to politics to protect themselves. Their way of life, which includes distinctive baptism and wedding ceremonies, is in danger of dying out entirely.

Life in the Middle East wasn’t always this way. The first Mandaean tribes migrated from the Holy Land to the banks of the lower Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia during the first and second centuries A.D. Over two thousand years, Mandaeans worked as gold and blacksmiths, and kept their language and identity alive during times marked by greater religious tolerance than the region experiences today.

It wasn’t until the sectarian violence that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq that saw Mandaeans ethnically cleansed and systematically tortured by militiamen acting in the name of Islam. In the aftermath, women were made to conceal their hair and dozens of families in Baghdad and elsewhere were forced to convert or face death.

Though around 3,000-5,000 Mandaeans still hang on in Iraq today, thousands more fled to Syria. But for those who made the move to Damascus, the echoes of those fraught days in Iraq are today growing louder.

“At first, life in Syria became difficult because prices went up; then it became unsafe for me and my children. I was afraid for my daughters,” said Asaad Abd Zahra, who left Syria for Australia with his family in June after a five-year stay in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana.

He said he didn’t witness any targeting of Mandaeans but said a bomb struck a friend’s house late last year and he is fearful of Jabhat al-Nusra, an opposition jihadist group inching its way towards Damascus.

For Adnan Hassan Faraj, the fear of Mandaean women becoming targets for jihadists, and the threat of being labelled infidels, are among his chief concerns. “For Mandaeans in Jaramana, the problems made life impossible. It was harder than our situation in Iraq – we were afraid that Salafis would take our girls.”

Mr. Faraj and his family were relocated to a Sydney suburb in June.

“We felt we weren’t welcome anymore in Syria, we couldn’t leave the area and thought we’d be hurt if we did; we saw videos on YouTube of Salafis taking Mandaean women in Jordan,” he said.

Mandaeans revere St. John the Baptist as well as a host of other figures from both the Old and New Testaments – though their religion is distinct from Christianity. Their main book of worship, the Ginza Rba, is written in Mandaic, an eastern dialect of Aramaic – the language of Jesus Christ.

The last existing Near Eastern Gnostics, Mandaeans live near flowing water and can be baptized as often as they wish – an act they believe helps advance purity.

Weddings ceremonies are unique: A bamboo-framed tent is constructed on open ground in which the bride-to-be sits inside in front of a table which holds nine mud plates – one for each month of pregnancy. Then, both bride and groom sit back-to-back and look into separate mirrors and pray, in order to cast out demons.

Before the Syrian regime reacted with brutal force against protesters in March 2011, Mandaeans were relatively free to gather and perform their religious activities in and around Damascus. Today, the same cannot be said.

Jaramana, a suburb southeast of Damascus, is home to mixed communities of Christians, Druze, Shia and Mandaeans – communities that have broadly sided with the Assad regime or remained silent during the current conflict. Recently, the district suffered its third deadly bombing in a year. Ten civilians were killed and a further 68 were injured. No group claimed responsibility, but government media blamed “terrorists.” Shells from rebels hiding out at farms to the east have been falling on Jaramana with increasing frequency.

Fifty-year-old Adel Said Jawdat left Syria in May with the help of UN agencies and says there are about 200 Mandaean families still trapped in Jaramana.

“The situation there is very, very bad. There were killings and that really scared me and my family,” he said.

“We were afraid of the bombs that fell; the sounds of planes flying overhead. We were also afraid of unexploded bomb and mortar shells lying about in the streets afterwards.”

Escaping war, this tiny community has found itself scattered to the four corners of the planet, making the continuation of its millennia-old customs and traditions increasingly difficult. About 1,500 Mandaeans have settled in Canada while 2,000 are in the U.S. Several thousand more have been granted asylum in Australia and Sweden. But because UN agencies only assess individual claims for refugee status, many have ended up scattered across the United States and elsewhere instead of being able to form local communities.

Clearly, having survived wars in Syria and Iraq, the greatest threat Mandaeans face today is, in fact, the act of fleeing.

Without established political or religious representation anywhere, their customs and culture may be lost forever within a few generations, say experts.

“I’m afraid it’s almost certainly the case,” said Charles Haberl of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. “Their culture is surely endangered.”

Conflict and political unrest is progressively robbing the Middle East of the social and cultural diversity minorities imbued, even while most simply want a peaceful life.

“I’m not a political person,” said Asaad Abu Zahra who is now relocated in Australia. “I want Syria to go back to how it was [before the revolution]. We just wanted stability and security for our families.”