The US led invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003. Shortly thereafter, Basil al-Majidi began working as a mechanical engineer for the United Nations in Baghdad. By April 9, the coalition forces had captured the city and Saddam Hussein was on the run. As a member of the Iraqi ethnic and religious minority group the Sabian Mandaeans, al-Majidi says he felt like a second-class citizen under Hussein’s Baathist regime. With Hussein no longer in power, al-Majidi was optimistic about the future.
On August 19, 2003 a cement truck filled with explosives detonated outside of the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Seventeen people were killed, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the chief UN envoy to Iraq. To this day, it remains unclear who was responsible for the attack, but the Canal Hotel bombing mirrored a much larger trend that started after the 2003 invasion—an increase in the number of attacks on nonmilitary targets in Iraq amid growing sectarian violence.
Suddenly al-Majidi found himself in the crossfire of a centuries-old ideological battle that was turning violent, each side determined to win and unconcerned with the collateral damage and the deaths of innocent bystanders. At the time of the bombing, al-Majidi was living in the Adhamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad with his father, a retired dentist, and his mother, a retired civil engineer. As the political and social climate in Baghdad continued to spiral into chaos, newborn Islamic militias started forming. The Adhamiyah neighborhood became a hotbed for Sunni Muslim insurgents. Under the Hussein regime, the Sunnis had held the majority of high government positions and they did not take kindly to the presence of occupying forces. Al-Majidi started to receive threats telling him to quit his job and to stop supporting the enemy. But after he quit, the threats intensified. He was now being targeted because of his religious and ethnic identity as a Sabian Mandaean. Text messages, phone calls, and letters were followed by physical violence. One day, when al-Majidi was out, militants came to the door asking for him. Only his mother was home. He says, “They came to our house and they threatened her. They physically hurt her—like pulling her from her hair because of being Mandaean.” They left a note demanding that al-Majidi and his family leave the “holy ground” of Adhamiya.
Mandaeans are pacifists by doctrine. Unable to fight back against the militias, al-Majidi was faced with the choice of either leaving his ancestral homeland of Iraq or staying and facing the violence and persecution. In the 1990s there were approximately 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq. Today the population is estimated at 4,000. Almost 90 percent of the community has been forced to flee the country.
The resettlement of Mandaeans across the globe, while saving individuals, is destroying the community as a whole. Dr. Suhaib Nashi, the Secretary General of the Mandaeans Associations Union, an umbrella organization that encompasses all Mandaean Associations outside of Iraq and Iran, argues that the resulting diaspora poses almost as many dangers as the militants. He says, “Dispersing them all over the place is sweet poison for us, actually. It kills the religion. It actually finishes what the insurgency is doing. We really need to understand and to be sensitive to the idea that the salvage of the Mandaeans, that’s not salvage of a family, it’s a salvage of culture, salvation of a whole community, and a whole group of people and language and religion.”
The Sabian Mandaeans have occupied Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (which includes most of modern-day Iraq and southwestern Iran) for over two thousand years. According to the Mandaean Associations Union website, the religion centers on the idea of gnostic dualism; there is a tension between the World of Light, known as nhura in the liturgical language Aramaic, and the World of Darkness or hshuka. The earthly world, tibil, was created as the result of an interaction between the World of Darkness and the World of Light. As in Judeo-Christian philosophy, the Mandaeans accept that Adam was the first man. However, they believe that John the Baptist is the Last Prophet and that Jesus is a false messiah. The sacrament of baptism, known as masbuta, is the oldest and most important ceremony. In the Mandaean faith, baptism can only take place in flowing, “living” water—hence the reasons Mandaeans are found in Mesopotamia.
In the third century, King Shahpur I of the Sassanid Empire started to persecute non-Zorastrian religions; Zorastrian is based on the teachings of the prophet Zoraster and was the predominant religion of the Sassanid Empire at the time. The Mandaeans were forced to move to the southern marsh regions of Iraq in order to practice their religion in peace. By the mid-seventh century, the Sassanid Empire was invaded by Khalid ibn Walid, and the Muslim conquest of Iraq began.
At the time of the conquests, the Mandaeans were saved from forced conversion because they were protected as dhimmi or “People of the Book.” According the Qur’an, the “People of the Book” are given protection to practice their faith and, historically, has included Jews, Christians, and a third group, referred to as the “Sabians.” However, the definition of dhimmi is often left to the Qu’ranic interpretation of individual clerics. By 2003, some radical Islamic clerics had announced that the Mandaeans were not considered dhimmi and therefore needed to be converted or killed.
After his mother was physically threatened by Sunni militants, al-Majidi and his parents decided to move from Adhamiyah to a new neighborhood called Palestine Street. But escaping the sectarian violence proved impossible. While Adhamiyah had been crawling with Sunni militias, Palestine Street was dominated by the Mahdi Army or Sadr militia, a paramilitary group founded by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr following the 2003 invasion.
At this point, Al-Majidi says that he and his family, along with the majority of the Mandaean community in Baghdad, felt compelled to keep their religious identities secret. According to al-Majidi, by 2004 no one went to the Mandaean temple. He says, “We couldn’t even do funeral ceremonies, for dead people. Many people were buried in their own backyards to avoid going to the cemetery which was in Abu Grahib area. For practicing rituals, for maintaining and preserving your own faith inside yourself? No, we just forgot about that. We just left it behind.”
With his engineering background and fluency in English, al-Majidi soon found a new job as the general manager of a tracking company providing logistics support to the coalition forces. At work he continued to keep up the charade: “I worked from 2004 til 2007 and no one, absolutely no one in my company knew that I was Mandaean. They knew that I was a Muslim. And I refused when they used to ask me ‘are you Sunni or Shiite,’ I refused to tell them. I would tell them ‘I am just a Muslim, I don’t discriminate.’”
But his secret didn’t last long. Once again, Al-Majidi started to receive death threats both at his job and at his house. By 2006, the situation had reached what he referred to as “unbearable limits.” As he describes it, “I worked with the coalition forces, which is a sin for the Baath Party, and I was a Mandaean, which was a sin for Al Qaeda or any Shiite Militias. You just feel that you are being rejected from all of the community, from all of the surroundings, so I had to escape.”
Al-Majidi and his parents fled to Syria, where they joined 1.3 million other Iraqi refugees. They began applying for refugee status through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After two and a half years of waiting, al-Majidi and his family were accepted for resettlement in the US.
According to Dr. Layla al-Roomi, spokeswoman for the Mandaean Human Rights Group, UNHCR only accepts Iraqi refugees on a case-by-case basis. “You have to prove that you were persecuted as an individual. They wouldn’t accept the Mandaeans as a group regardless of how much we tried to emphasize that this small community will not survive,” she says.
Al-Roomi warns that if Mandaean refugees continue to be resettled on an individual basis, the group will cease to exist. She is echoed by Dr. Nashi, who noted, “We’re being divided all over Europe. We are being divided even in the United States. But there are rituals, religious rituals that need a group to do. The baptism, the intermarriage, the revival of the language. The revival of the religion.”
Both the Mandaean Union and the Mandaean Human Rights Group are lobbying several governments, including the United States, Sweden, and Australia, to accept Mandaean refugees as a group. As it stands now, the largest populations of Mandaean refugees are in Australia and Sweden, each numbering 7,000 people. There is currently a larger Mandaean population living in Australia than in their original homeland of Iraq. According to both Nashi and al-Roomi, the only way to save the Mandaean community from extinction is to resettle the Iraqi Mandaeans in large enough groups to allow for religious practice.
Katie Jennings B’10 first researched and reported on the Sabian Mendaeans for “War News Radio,” a podcast based out of Swarthmore College in Summer 2009.