BAGHDAD — On the western bank of the Tigris River, some of the last survivors of a dying sect still gather on most Sundays, as they have for at least the past 2,000 years, to perform the baptism rituals that are central to their religion.
Donning simple white robes that they say are identical to the one God gave to Adam, they immerse themselves in the muddy waters of the Tigris and invoke “the angels of creation” to wash away their sins.
They are Mandaeans, the descendants of one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities that they claim predates Islam, Christianity and even perhaps Judaism.
And they are on the brink of extinction.
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On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about 30,000 Mandaeans lived in Iraq. In the face of the persecution and threats that followed, that number has dwindled to between 3,500 and 5,000, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 report on religious freedoms.
Hundreds have been kidnapped and killed. Most of the rest have fled for their lives, to Syria and Jordan, where they have applied for asylum in far-flung countries such as Sweden, Australia and most recently — since the U.S. opened its doors to Iraqi refugees — America.
Scattered around the world in tiny communities, the chances that the religion will survive more than a few generations are slim, experts say. Mandaeism does not accept converts, and the children of Mandaeans who marry non-Mandaeans do not belong to the sect.
There are only 35 priests left in the world familiar with the elaborate ceremonies of a people who claim to be directly descended from Adam and who regard John the Baptist as their most important prophet.“It has been a catastrophe for us,” said Sattar Jabar Helou, who heads the Mandaean sect worldwide. “This is one of the world’s oldest religions, and it is going to die.”
Mandaeans, known as Sabis in Arabic, are just one of several minorities who have historically given Iraq its distinct identity as a cradle of religious diversity. All have suffered disproportionately from the spread of anarchy and extremism in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
Iraq’s once substantial Christian community has seen its numbers dwindle from around 800,000 to 500,000. Yazidis, a lettuce-shunning minority that venerates the forces of good and evil, have been targeted for attacks in their enclaves along the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. Shabbaks, a Muslim sect that permits alcohol and is neither Sunni nor Shiite, have been persecuted in their ancestral lands near the northern city of Mosul.
But Mandaeans have proved particularly vulnerable, said Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of literature and history at the University of California Santa Cruz.
They lack a specific geographic region of their own, and instead are distributed in communities along the banks of the Tigris River.
Though they worship the same God as Muslims, Christians and Jews and are mentioned in the Quran, they reject the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, and they have been singled out by extremist Islamic clerics for fatwas, or religious edicts, saying it is permissible to kill them as infidels.
Traditionally, they are goldsmiths, though in recent decades they have also entered the professional ranks as doctors and teachers. Their wealth and their religion have put them at double jeopardy for attacks by criminals as well as extremists, Helou said.
At the Mandaean temple, or Mandi, in Baghdad, members of the extended Jassim family gathered on a recent Sunday for something that has become an increasing rarity in the dwindling Mandaean community: a wedding. All had tales to tell of persecution at the hands of Sunni and Shiite extremists alike.
Laith Salah Jassim, 20, was marrying his cousin, Hamsa Najah Jassim, 14, whose parents pulled her out of school two years ago because of threats.
“I don’t have any friends,” said Hamsa, whose Shiite schoolmates shunned her after the U.S. invasion. “They say: ‘You come from a dirty sect; you don’t pray, you don’t read the Quran.’ ”
Laith and his father were forced to flee their goldsmith business in the western province of Anbar in 2006 by Sunni insurgents who threatened them with death unless they converted to Islam.
Laith’s uncle, Falah Jassim, 54, pulled up his pant legs to reveal the scars of the acid he says was poured on him after he was kidnapped in 2003 by Shiite militias in the southern town of Kut.
“They told me, ‘You are dirty, we don’t want you here anymore,’ ” recalled Falah, who was beaten and left for dead in a field. He fled to Baghdad, where his eldest son was kidnapped and tortured by Sunnis in 2004.
The son has been given political asylum in Australia, but Falah’s application was rejected. Once a wealthy goldsmith, he now runs a tea stand with his 12-year-old son, Ali, who was also forced to leave school.
But once Mandaeans reach the West, they are at risk of losing touch with their cultures and traditions. No overseas community numbers more than 4,000, and that is hardly enough to support their survival, scholars say.
“The extinction of the Mandean community is going to be one of the consequences of the Iraq war, an unintentional consequence, but how much more disastrous than that can you get?” Deutsch said. “These are a people who have survived for thousands of years.”