Free Liberal

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Let the Mandaeans Come In

by Fred E. Foldvary

The war in Iraq has let loose extreme supremacists who seek to murder anyone not of their faith. Iraq is being torn apart by religious wars in which the supremacists are killing not only those of a different sect of Islam but also Christians and other religious minorities. A little known ancient religion in Iraq is in danger of being totally exterminated: Mandaeanism.

Mandaeans date back to New Testament times as a branch of the Gnostic movement related to early Christianity. The Mandaeans regard John the Baptist as their great teacher. According to the article, Who Are the Mandaens? by Julie Abadirad, they lived “in the lands of the lower Euphrates, the lower Tigris , the rivers that surround the Shatt-al-Arab, and in the adjacent Iranian Province of Khuzistan (once called Arabistan).” Portuguese monks called them Christians of Saint John because of their baptismal rites, although the Mandaeans are not Christians.

Mandaeans, also called “Sabean Mandaeans,” believe in one God, whom they call Haii Rabi , meaning “the great life” or the “Great Living God.” They hold that Adam, the first Mandaean, received the religion directly from God. Sunday is their holy day. They believe that baptism (Masbuta), the key ritual in the Mandaean faith, cleans people of their sins and saves their souls from the effects of evil. Their language, Mandaic, is related to ancient Aramaic. According to Fredrick Aprim, the Mandaeans are the “true descendants” of the ancient Babylonains and Chaldeans. After Islam became established, Mandaeans had a dhimmi status like the Christians and Jews.

Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, there were 60 thousand Mandaeans in Iraq and some in Iran. Since then, like the Christians, the Mandaeans have been targeted by both Sunni and Shia Muslim supremacists. Their property has been stolen and destroyed, their women raped, and the people murdered. Now there are only a few thousand Mandaeans left in Iraq, and they are not welcomed in Iran either. Thousands of Mandaeans have fled to the Kurdish area in northern Iraq and to Jordan, Syria, and other countries, but the long-run survival of the religion is precarious, as the Mandaeans are thinly scattered all over the world.

There are 1500 Mandaeans living in the USA, organized in the Mandaean Society of America. The Mandaean Canadian Community Association is also active. Now that the US government has agreed to let up to twenty thousand Iraqis immigrate, the highest priority should be to get threatened religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, and Mandaeans out of Iraq. It would be a global cultural tragedy to let this remnant of ancient Middle Eastern culture become extinct. Let the Mandaeans come in.

This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.