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Mandaeans find safety but fear losing faith

By Russell Contreras
Associated Press / July 25, 2009

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WORCESTER - Suha Abdula walks through the streets of her new country, acutely aware that no one notices her.

Silent are the voices that called her dirty in her native Iraq. Gone are the fingers that pointed and threatened as she passed. Absent are the bombs that destroyed her husband’s store - all because she and her family practice Mandaeanism, an ancient religion that views John the Baptist as its great teacher.

Here, in the quiet of this Central Massachusetts city, Abdula and 150 others have formed the largest Iraqi Mandaean refugee settlement in the United States. Here, they are not infidels, not subject to forced conversions, rape, or even murder by Islamic extremists.

“Now I can breathe,’’ says Abdula, 36. “It’s so peaceful.’’

Yet in her freedom comes a newfound fear: If no cares we’re here, who will care if we disappear?

That is the struggle across the globe for Mandaeans, whose ranks are fading quickly. Away from the land they had called home for more than two millennia, and without a permanent priest or proper place of worship for the next generation, the refugees worry their tiny, ancient religion is facing extinction.

“We’re saving the people but killing the faith,’’ said Wisam Breegi, a Mandaean doctor and US citizen who has helped bring dozens of Mandaean refugees to Massachusetts. “But right now we’re in survival mode.’’

Since 2007, about 1,200 Iraqi Mandaean refugees have been resettled in the United States, according to the US State Department.

The groups are scattered - mostly in Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, Colorado, and California - and that is a problem when it comes to sustaining the faith, said Suhaib Nashi, president of the Mandaean Associations Union based in Morristown, N.J.

Mandaeanism does not allow conversion and some believe intermarriage means expulsion from the faith. Mandaeans also need a body of running water for their ritual baptisms and guidance from one of the world’s two dozen remaining Mandaean priests.

“We are in a dilemma and need to come together,’’ Nashi said. “If not, we will fade away.’’

Traced to the period of the Roman Empire, specialists say Mandaeanism is a branch of the Gnostic movement that doesn’t view Jesus as a Messiah, but contains Judeo-Christian elements. For years, the Tigris River was the setting of the religion’s all-important regular baptisms.

In the 1990s about 70,000 Mandaeans lived in Iraq. Today, only around 3,000 or so remain.

Nathaniel Deutsch, codirector of the Center for Jewish Studies at University of California Santa Cruz, said the mass Mandaean exodus was an unintended consequence of the Iraq war.

“Mandaeans have always had a tenuous existence in Iraq and Iran where they’ve lived for thousands of years. But under Saddam Hussein, they has some protection,’’ Deutsch said. “When his regime fell, it became a free-for-all.’’

The Mandaean population in Iran, which is estimated between 5,000 to 10,000, is also dwindling. Around 1,000 or so Iranian Mandaeans since 2002 have come to the United States after the State Department granted them protective refugee status - a status not given to Iraqi Mandaeans until 2007.

In Worcester, refugees have conducted a few ceremonial baptisms in local Lake Quinsigamond, a 4-mile long pond popular for rowing regattas. Recently, a Mandaean priest from Detroit came to Worcester to conduct a wedding and baptisms. Another priest from Holland is visiting, although it’s unclear how long he will stay or how the younger Mandaeans will learn about their faith.

“It’s important to us after everything that’s happened,’’ said Naji Tamool, a 58-year-old refugee who came to Worcester with his wife and five children after fleeing to Yemen. “I want my children to stay Mandaean and not disappear.’’

Natheer Tayyeh, a 45-year-old jeweler also living in Worcester, said he hopes the refugees can persuade a priest to stay permanently.

“We kept our religion when we were Iraq,’’ said Tayyeh through an interpreter. “We want to keep it here, too.’’

Thirty-five Mandaean families have settled in Worcester, Breegi said. They are learning English and getting job training at Lutheran Social Services. Some have already found work as groundskeepers or office workers or in factories.

Mandaean refugees say the next goal will be to raise money so that the community can build a manda, a place of worship next to a body of running water to perform baptisms.