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Dwindling sect attempts to rebuild in Iraq

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- The end of the short war brought long-awaited news for the Mandeans, an obscure religious sect that follows the teachings of John the Baptist and takes a somewhat dim view of Christ and Mohammed though it respects all religions.

Documents recovered from the vaults of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provided answers for what happened to 69 of the sect's members who disappeared. They were executed. A mass funeral laid their souls to rest Aug. 8.

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The Mandeans, or Sabeans as they are known in Iraq, are still awaiting news of 73 others, all of who disappeared during the 40 years Saddam's Baath Party was in power. It's a paltry number compared to what other groups have lost to political violence in Iraq, but when you are among 20,000 like-minded believers, each one counts, says Alaa Dhlh Kamar, the spokesman for the church in Baghdad.

The U.S. led war exacted its own toll -- 31 Mandeans died in the bombing of Baghdad, 13 of them in a single house, Kamar said.

Despite the losses, which are felt grievously, it is a great relief for the Mandeans to be free of Saddam. The regime made a big show of allowing the Mandeans to practice their religion unfettered, as they were considered "people of the book" -- actually mentioned in the Koran -- but Kamar says it was just that: show.

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"We practices freely in the public media only," he said.

The Mandeans were a periodic stop for the international media as it trouped through pre-war Baghdad. Their unusual baptismal ritual -- often once weekly, with the adherents in glowing white robes -- and multiple simultaneous weddings made for good television and good public relations for the regime, which systematically slaughtered Kurds, Shiites and political opponents.

Publicly, the Mandeans played along. Mandeans "presented sacrifices and martyrs for the sake of their homeland like any other group. The Mandeans are still ready to defend their country and are proud of their love of home and its ancient civilization, seeking to maintain its unity and their territorial integrity," the group declared on its Web site in 1999 when it was still under the thumb of the regime.

In truth, Kamar says, the Mandeans like the Quakers are pacifists: their religion does not allow them to take another human life, no matter what the reason, and certainly they should not be in the military.

"The prophet John left of so many words of instructions which we have lived with for 2,000 years," Kamar said. "He left something we appreciate, which is `my sons be peaceful.' We don't believe in killing or fighting."

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The term "conscientious objector" has no equivalent in Iraq, Kamar said -- he was forced to be in the military for 7 years, fighting in the bloody Iran-Iraq war. Despite his education and religion, which should have allowed him to be an officer and stay off the front lines, he said, he was a foot soldier because he was not a Baathist.

The Mandeans were not allowed to have schools for their children to teach them the ancient Aramaic in which their sacred texts are written. Al-Ginza Raba, which means "the greatest treasury," their holy book was translated into Arabic by a famous Iraqi poet two years ago after more than 2,000 years in the lost language. The religion will have a hard time recovering from 40 years of oppression.

It doesn't help their fortunes that it is impossible to convert to Mandeanism, says Kamar. Mandeans may marry out of the religion, but no one may marry into it.

It also doesn't help that their requirements for leadership -- the equivalent to the Catholic pope -- are so stringent none of their priests could meet it for several years, so the position, also called the Ginza Raba, went unfilled.

An old man shuffles into the ascetic steamy office looking like Father Time himself. Kamar greets him with kisses and a whispered prayer and hands him a stack of magazines published by the group. The unassuming Satar Jabar Hello is the Ginza Raba, and he was preparing for his first trip outside the country to open a Manda in Scandanavia.

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"We are living from the gifts we receive from our people (outside Iraq)," Kamar says. "There is a heavy duty on them."

Because the Mandeans refused to join the Baath Party they were blocked from well-paid government positions and depend on donations from other countries to keep their doors open. Although John the Baptist practiced in Jordan, early Mandeans were forced to leave Jordan and they settled in Iraq around 67 A.D.

"This is God's will, but in my own view if we had known how we would have suffered here, they should have changed the place," Kamar said. "My believing in God is the most powerful thing. I have my own treasury of books and poems, and I believe this is the inheritance for my family."

Mandeans, the oldest continuous gnostic sect -- who believe it is possible to know God through study and reason, rather than just faith -- believe the first of their kind was Adam, followed by the prophet Shetel and the son of Noah.

Their symbol looks like a cross -- bringing to mind Christianity -- but Kamar says the cross is really just a hanger. The important part is the gleaming white cloth wrapped around the wood, which represents purity. Christ is believed to have been a prophet -- less important the John -- but nothing more.

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The Mandeans' dietary guidelines are as stringent as those of observant Jews though perhaps more mysterious.

For meat they can eat only lamb or beef or chicken. They may not eat birds of prey or birds that eat fish. They may not eat buffalo, camel, horse, ox, pig, rabbit, cat or dog. They may eat only fruits and vegetables that grow from seeds, so mushrooms are out. Before they eat, they must scrub their hands and arms to their elbows.

They pray only before sunset, as to pray in the dark invites the attention of their version of the devil because their guardian spirits have returned to heaven for the night. Once a year, however, during a five-day creation feast in March they may pray after dark.

The celebration this year coincided with the start of the war on March 20, Kamar said. While the international media promised to cover the mass baptisms none of them came as they had a bigger story at their doorstep. The baptisms went on, despite the bombing.

"Believing in God is more powerful than a dictator," he said.

The Mandeans celebrate their new year on July 22, a 36-hour period that requires them to clear their homes of all animals -- an obliging non-Mandean neighbor usually takes them -- and they clean the home from top to bottom. They do not leave for the full 36 hours and neither do they sleep. This is the only time of the year when Mandeans may not be baptized, as naturally flowing water at this loses its purifying capabilities and becomes polluted with the devil's touch.

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The Mandeans of Baghdad do not have that option, anyway.

The baptismal pool, while clean and pleasant and under a shaded portico, is yet another concession the Mandeans were forced to make to Saddam's family.

Their small church complex backs up to a tributary of the Tigris, and in times past they would conduct baptisms in the river or in a small pool just beside it at the base of a manda, a three sided mud hut that serves as a meditation space for the Mandean priests.

A little over a decade ago, however, Uday Hussein decided he wanted a lake. He dammed the river just upstream, leaving a weak trickle of silty water. The riverbed is now just weak bog choked by reeds and grasses.

"Because of our suffering under the old regime we don't have so many things in our heart to give to our new generation," Kamar said, surveying the scene. Because the Mandeans are so few, they have no voice on the new governing council and no hope of getting their sacred flow of water restored.

Across the tributary is a fertile farm. Kamar says there was a major land battle there during their five-day celebration. The land was littered with the bodies of Iraqi soldiers.

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