Ancient monotheistic sect ponders future after fall of Saddam Hussein

One of the oldest monotheistic faiths with followers still concentrated in the Middle East is the Sabean faith, which predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Our ancestors first appeared in Palestine where Prophet Yehia (John the Baptist) baptized Jesus in the Jordan River,according to Alaa Dehlah, spokesperson of the sect.

Dehlah told The Daily Star that in 70 BC, however, Jews repressed the Sabeans who moved to southern Mesopotamia. He added that Sabeans, also known as Mendean Sabeans, lived in areas that are abundant in water.

Today, followers of the oldest known monotheistic faith number some 200,000, most of whom live in Iraq while a few live in Iran and in Western countries.

The Sabean faith is based on five main pillars: monotheism, prayer, fasting, charity and a special form of baptism which is practiced often and is supposed to cleanse the souls of Sabean believers and wash them of their sins.

Alcoholic beverages are prohibited under Sabeanism. As for women’s headdresses, they are not mandated but women are expected to cover their heads whenever they enter the sect’s house of worship.

Like the three other monotheistic religions, Sabeanism believes that Adam was the father of humanity and that, throughout human history, there was a succession of prophets the last of whom was Yehia (John the Baptist).

The sect’s symbol is the Prophet Yehia’s flag wrapping two sticks made of a special kind of timber positioned in the shape of a plus and not a cross. On top of the Sabean plus stand two olive oil branches.

Our symbol stands for three main principles, namely life, peace and light, said Dehlah.

Sabeanism is not open for converts. Non-Sabeans are not allowed to attend Sabean ceremonies held every Sunday. The Sabean holy book is called Kanzerba and is written in Eastern Aramaic, a Semitic language believed to be an ancestor of Arabic and Hebrew.

In 2001, Kanzerba was translated to Arabic and copies are freely circulated. Even though the faith itself does not welcome new comers; its teachings are public.

In Baghdad, the sect has a single worship house. When The Daily Star visited the Sabeans’ place of congregation, the sect’s council was convening to discuss its future in light of the regime change in the country.

Inside the T-shaped Menda, the name of the house of worship, sat some 300 Sabean delegates who came from around the country. Rows of seats facing each other and perpendicular to the Menda’s entrance were filled with Sabean laymen and religious leaders.

Also attending was the top Sabean religious leader Kanzebra Sattar Jabbar Helo, a white-bearded man dressed in a white robe and headdress.

We’re discussing the future of the sect and not that of the country since, as a sect, we do not deal with politics, said Dehlah who offered to brief The Daily Star on the meeting’s debate by summarizing the minutes he had taken.

Dehlah argued that inside the Menda he was a Mendean Sabean but outside the worship house he was an ordinary Iraqi citizen. The sect also forbids that its followers serve in official posts, he said.

The sect was reportedly on good terms with Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the monthly magazine Mendean Perspectives, the issue published just prior to the downfall of the regime displayed a picture of the deposed Iraqi president with praise from Kanzebra Helo.

Mendean Perspectives was never circulated, however, because it had the toppled Iraqi leader’s picture in it.

But several Iraqis described the Sabeans as being Saddam’s cronies. This impression probably surfaced because a famous Sabean poet, Abdel-Razzaq Abdel-Wahed, constantly praised Saddam Hussein in his verse.

In this case, Abdel-Wahed was not an exception since all Iraqi poets living under the Saddam Hussein rule had no choice but to hail the achievements of their omnipotent president.

I served in the army between 1986 and 1991 because I had to. When I finished my military service, I could not find a job because I was not a member of the ruling Baath Party, said Dehlah.

I hope things would change for the better and the Sabeans would live in peace and participate in the building of a better country, he said.