THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

UN: Iraqi Mandaeans hard to resettle in 1 place

By Russell Contreras
Associated Press / November 11, 2010

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BOSTON—No single country wants to take all the Iraqi Mandaean refugees, and that's putting the tiny population at risk, a United Nations refugee official said Thursday.

Vincent Cochetel told the Associated Press that nations don't take in refugees from just a single ethnic or religious group. The countries also face capacity issues of their own, he said.

"It makes sense to keep them together, but no one nation can provide them with effective protection," said Cochetel, who represents the U.S. and the Caribbean for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "Nations also have to take into consideration affordable housing available. That's just the social reality."

Cochetel said even in the U.S. the U.N. has to rely of the ability of states and local charity groups to find the space needed to resettled refugees.

Those comments come as Iraqi Mandaean advocates press U.S. and U.N. officials to work to resettle Iraqi Mandaean refugees in closer locations since the population's numbers are dwindling.

Mandaeanism is a tiny, ancient religion that views John the Baptist as its great teacher. About 60,000 Mandaeans recently have fled Iraq and Iran because of persecution, many to Jordan and Syria.

Since 2007, more than 1,200 Iraqi Mandaean refugees have been resettled in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. The groups are scattered mostly in Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, Colorado and California. Populations also have been resettled in Europe and Australia.

Boston Mandaean doctor Wisam Breegi said Mandaeans need to be resettled together for support in one place, like Boston, or the population will disappear within two generations.

"This community has no country and is scattered all over the world," Breegi said. "There needs to be an effort to try to keep Mandaeans together."

The Boston area has one of the largest resettled population of Mandaeans with about 450.

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.

Traced to the period of the Roman Empire, experts 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 Iraq, an unintended consequence from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, experts say.

Jozefina Lantz, the director of immigrant services at Lutheran Social Services in Worcester, Mass., who has helped resettled Mandaeans in Massachusetts, said she understands why it would be difficult to resettle the population in one location.

"It would overwhelm a community and be detrimental to other groups we serve," Lantz said.

But Lantz said U.N. officials should look into efforts to speed up the process of getting Mandaean refugees who have been designated to be resettled to the U.S.

"A lot of times, them just sitting and waiting puts them at risk," Lantz said.