Tiny sect fearful, hopeful in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Tanks rumbled past on a nearby bridge yesterday and US helicopters soared overhead, but by the bank of the Tigris River was a scene from thousands of years ago.

Hundreds of Sabaean Mandeans -- a tiny sect that views John the Baptist as savior -- waited in line in gauzy, white tunics to submerge themselves in the ancient river. They were celebrating the eve of their first New Year since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and many said they were just as worried about the future as they were happy to see the dictator go.

''We expect there will be problems,'' said Satar Jabar Hello, 49, leader of the world's Sabaean Mandeans, as he blessed a bearded, old man with holy water during the ceremony. ''We believe in peace, but others maybe do not.''

Water is everything to the Sabaean Mandeans, who are baptized and married in it, and receive their last rites by the river's edge.

The group, which believes that John, and not Jesus Christ, was the true Messiah, was allowed to worship under Hussein. But the regime seized several of its temples, and the group was not allowed to build new ones outside Baghdad. Like all groups in Iraq, they say many followers were among the estimated 300,000 people murdered during Hussein's 23-year reign.

Still, they say the future might be even worse for their sect as fundamentalist Islamic groups begin to assert control in a new Iraq. Majority Shi'ite Muslims, long oppressed by Hussein, appear poised to take a commanding role in the emerging government, much to the Sabaean Mandeans' dismay.

''Under Saddam, we were more free, because he was against the Shi'ites and that protected us,'' said Furat Jabar, a woman waiting to be blessed in the river. ''But now, the Shi'ites hate us and want us dead.''

Many Sabaean Mandeans expressed the same concerns during the all-day ritual.

In the ritual, followers cleanse themselves, then pray before a cross-shaped symbol, adorned by a white baptismal cloak and an olive branch -- signifying light, life, and peace. Rites are conducted in a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken in the Middle East in the time of Jesus.

They then are baptized in the river before sacrificing chickens and sheep that are eaten in a feast in tribute to the dead.

Today and tomorrow, followers will lock themselves in their homes while they await the return of angels sent to heaven to thank God and ask his blessing for the new year.

''This is the greatest day, when the earth was brought together and the stars were set in their places. It is the beginning of the physical universe,'' said Hello.

Followers say there are between 80,000 and 200,000 Sabaean Mandeans in the world. The majority are in Iraq, but some also live in southern Iran and tiny communities have emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Europe. In Iraq most of the followers work as gold- and silversmiths, and many are fine craftsman.

The religion combines aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Gnosticism, but is considered separate from each and generally does not accept converts.

Another Sabaean Mandean, Zahar Hassan, says life has been difficult since the Americans ousted Hussein. Like most Baghdad residents, his family is suffering through a searing, hot summer without electricity and with an erratic water supply.

But he said he welcomed the US-led invasion and says he is planning a memorial service for followers of the faith killed by the former dictator -- including three of his uncles.

''We are flying with happiness since Saddam is gone,'' he said.

Furat Jabar says she's not so sure. She is angry that the sect has been shut out of the new Governing Council set up by Iraq's US occupiers this month. The 25-member council, the forerunner of a fully sovereign Iraqi government, includes Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and even an ethnic Turk and an Assyrian Christian.

After waiting it out for years under Hussein, Jabar says she is thinking of emigrating to Europe, where she has several relatives. She says anywhere she can perform baptisms will do.