Friday, 26 April 2013

Iraqi Mandaeans Face Genocide, Desperatly Need Asylum

Written by  John Bolender

The Mandaeans, a tiny but ancient religious community living primarily in Iraq, are in desperate need of expedited refugee status in Europe, Australia, and the United States. Their situation in Iraq meets the definition of genocide, the attempt to exterminate a people or nation.
Lawlessness in Iraq
According to the 31 August 2006 "Human Rights Report" issued by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI),
In spite of considerable efforts by the new Government to ensure respect for human rights and re-establish the rule of law, human rights violations, particularly against the right to life and personal integrity, continued to occur at an alarming daily rate. During the reporting period [2006] the number of civilians killed was a reported total of 6,599 (3,590 in July and 3,009 in August). The month of July witnessed an increase in the number of security related incidents resulting in an unprecedented number of civilians killed throughout the country.
A main aspect of the present situation in Iraq is the lack of a centralized and authorized control over the use of force in the country. As a result, there is a continuous growth of the militias, coupled with the emergence of gangs and organized crime sometimes accused of having links to sectors of the police and the security forces, as well as an increase in the number of private security firms – national and international. Militias, at times linked to political parties which are also part of the Government, continue to operate outside the law; death squads and sectarian and religious extremists are equally prone to commit human rights violations.
Who are the victims of this violence? Overwhelmingly, they are Muslim. But, relative to their representation in the population, religious minorities are especially singled out. Attacks on Iraqi Christians increased in the spring of 2004 (11, 12, 14) culminating in the bombing of five churches in Mosul in August of that year (10). (Note that references are arranged in chronological order at the end.) Of the 24 million Iraqis, three percent are estimated to belong to religious minorities, mainly Christian and Mandaean (17, p. 9). Although only three percent of the population, religious minorities compose forty percent of the refugees having fled Iraq in the past three years (22).

Mandaeans face an especially difficult situation. The Iraqi Islamic Mujahideen, a militant group, demands that all Mandaeans convert to Islam, leave the country, or be killed (13). The BBC reports that a leaflet was distributed to Christian and Mandaean homes in Baghdad reading "Either you embrace Islam and enjoy safety and coexist amongst us, or leave our land and stop toying with our principles. Otherwise, the sword will be the judge between belief and blasphemy" (16). This was not an idle threat.
Who Are the Mandaeans?
In the newsmedia, the Mandaeans are sometimes referred to as being devoted "to the teachings of John the Baptist" (6). This is accurate but misleading, not only because Mandaeans insist that theirs is the religion of Adam, but also because they have their own scriptures containing their own account of John the Baptist which disagrees with much of the Christian Bible's depiction of him. There are, furthermore, many elements of the Mandaean religion which Christians, as well as Muslims and Jews for that matter, would find alien (2, 3, 21). The Mandaean religion resembles ancient Gnosticism in some respects: God did not create the world directly, but delegated its creation to deputies who made both a superior world of light and an inferior darker world in which humans live, it being impossible to create a world of light without also creating a world of darkness. Salvation is the successful transition to the world of light after death. Many early Christians were Gnostic, but such ideas were also condemned in the early Church as well, and by the time of the Emperor Constantine, Christian Gnosticism was quite marginal. It did not survive very long in the West.
It is a testimony to the traditional tolerance of Islam that a Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic religion, in the form of Mandaeanism, was able to survive through the medieval Middle East and into modern times, although it was not always easy for it do so. Hostility from other religions in the area, forced the Mandaeans to move to the marshy land south of Babylon during the middle ages (20). Turning to recent times, economic sanctions had a devastating effect on Iraq, leading to a great increase in mortality (1). "The misery caused fanatic ideas to pour forth, including the common belief that what was happening was God's punishment for the atheists in their midst." This led to increased pressure on Mandaeans to convert to Islam (21). Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Mandaeans were often coerced by the secret police into making generous donations to the Iraqi government (17). The current lawlessness of Iraq has also been used as an opportunity for the repudiation of debts owed to Mandaeans, leaving them without hope of redress (7). Far more seriously, the persecution of Mandaeans today has reached the point where their existence is seriously threatened. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was the trigger for a wave of hostility directed against Mandaeans even worse than what they had experienced before. According to reports received by the Sabian Mandaean Association in Australia (SMAA), attacks by Muslims against Mandaeans in Iraq commenced within days of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (15).
The Koran guarantees protection to Jews, Christians, and a somewhat mysterious group known as "Sabaeans" or "Sabians." In fact, "Sabian" does mean the Baptized in Aramaic Mandaean (20). The Mandaeans have survived through the centuries by identifying themselves as Sabaeans, but that identification is sometimes questioned.
Depending on the secular or religious authority, Mandaeans have been tolerated and partly recognized, but they have also been considered kafirs, i.e. infidels, and massacred. Two such massacres happened in the mid 18th century. In a recent book by the Muslim scholar, Dr. Rasheed Khayoon, the author mentions 15 different opinions in Islamic history, concerning Mandaeans, 10 of which ruled that Mandaeans were infidels and should be dealt with by the sword. These rulings are still resonating among several current Islamic fundamentalist groups. (21)
Prior to his assassination in August 2003, the Ayatollah al-Hakim, a prominent Shi,ite cleric in Iraq, judged that Mandaeans are not "people of the Book" (Ahl al-Kitab), meaning that they are not protected from forced conversion to Islam or even from being killed (5, 6). Their "unclean" status also makes it difficult for Mandaeans to find employment (4).
Iraqi Mandaeans were once estimated to be roughly 30,000 (18) or 40,000 (17) in number but falling. More recently, the number of Iraqi Mandaeans has been estimated at 13,000 (16, 19). "Although it is very difficult to estimate, the Mandaeans could barely exceed fifty thousand at the present time" (21). Many Mandaeans have fled Iraq since the fall of Saddam Husein's regime. The main reasons are fear of forced conversion, fear of assault, and restrictions on freedom of worship. Mandaeans reject violence and aggression in all circumstances. They are strictly prohibited from carrying weapons, which leaves them especially vulnerable to attack (18, 21). For the time period from December 2003 through November 2006, "Crimes Against the Sabian Mandaeans," published by The Mandaean Society of America documents 175 cases of murders or attempts to murder perpetrated against Mandaeans in Iraq. The ages of the victims, at least those whose ages were recorded, range from three to seventy-four years. In the last three years, 166 Mandaeans received threats because of their religion, and there were twenty-one cases of looting or burglary. In 2004 and 2005, there were ten reported cases of Mandaean women in Baghdad who were raped because of their religion. Four of the cases also involved kidnapping. In Fallujah and Baghdad, there have been twenty-five cases of forced conversion to Islam. In the last two years, forty-three Mandaeans were forced to leave al-Ramadi fleeing to Jordan and Syria, all these statistics being from "Crimes Against the Sabian Mandaeans." Note, however, that the same document notes that "The information of this report does not cover all the cases. Many incidents are not mentioned, either because the persons who have been affected by these incidents have already left Iraq or they were in a hurry to travel so they didn't record the incidents ... . The other reason is that some people didn't give information for the fear of revenge of the perpetrators." "Hundreds of cases were not reported because of the social stigma" (Mandaean Human Rights Group, pers.comm.).
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Mandaean families have been forced to convert to Islam, including forced circumcisions. Mandaean women and girls have been forced to marry Muslim men (5). One cannot be a Mandaean without two Mandaean parents (2, 3, 9, 21). Hence, the forced marriages are a means of forcing the religion out of existence.
Genocide and Asylum
The treatment described above fits the United Nations' definition of "genocide." Article 2 of the UNHCR's [The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide reads as follows:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (0)
The Mandaeans have no recognized homeland or safe place to flee in the Middle East, making it crucial for them to be admitted as refugees in more tolerant countries. In a letter to Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, Felice Gaer, Chair of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, complains about U.S. barriers to access for Mandaean and Chaldo-Assyrian Christian refugees from Iraq (22). The letter, written in November 2006, goes on to note that, even though conditions were severe in September of 2005, they have since grown even worse. Gaer recommends that Dobriansky
Create new or expand existing options for allowing members of Iraq's ChaldoAssyrian and Sabean Mandaean religious minority communities to access the U.S. refugee program. ... Urge UNHCR to resume full RSD [Refugee Status Determination] for all Iraqi asylum seekers and assess all claims without delay.
The BBC features the headline "Iraq Chaos Threatens Ancient Faith" (16). Similarly, Sarah Reinke of Germany's Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft für Bedrohte V?lker) writes, "Like the Huguenots in Germany the Mandaeans need refuge in a safe and tolerant exile so that their religion with its teaching, language and traditions going back two thousand years does not get lost for ever. The Mandaeans, among them traditionally many gold and silversmiths, well educated academics, engineers, doctors and highly qualified craftsmen, urgently need help" (19). Fair enough. But framing the matter this way makes it sound as though one should assist the Mandaeans in acquiring asylum because of their anthropological or historical interest or because they would make a good contribution to society. The main point, as no doubt Reinke would wholeheartedly agree, is their humanity.

0. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" [].
1. Richard Garfield, "Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children from 1990 through 1998: Assessing the Impact of the Gulf War and Economic Sanctions" 1999 [].
2. E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Gorgias Press, Piscataway, New Jersey, 2002; first published in 1937.
3. Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002, translated from the Italian by Charles Hindley; first published in 1993.
4. Elizabeth Kendal, "Will the Mandaeans Survive Post-War Iraq?," World Evangelical Alliance, 24 July 2003;
5. Elizabeth Kendal, "Iraq: The Persecution of Mandaeans," ASSIST News Service, 31 January 2004;
6. Willis Witter, "Iraqi Christians Fear Muslim Wrath," The Washington Times, 7 April 2004;
7. Elizabeth Kendal, "Can Sovereignty Guarantee Security?," World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis, 28 May 2004;
8. Refugees International, "Refugees International Advocates with Danish Government for Asylum for Mandaeans from Iraq," 21 June 2004;
9. Valentinas Mite, "Old Sabaean-Mandean Community Is Proud of Its Ancient Faith," Radio Free Europe, 14 July 2004.
10. Katherine Zoepf, "Exodus: Many Christians Flee Iraq, With Syria the Haven of Choice," The New York Times, 5 August 2004.
11. Dale Gavlak, "Iraqi Christians Fleeing to Jordan, Syria," Compass Direct News, 6 October 2004;
12. John Hanford, "Testimony by John Hanford, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Depaertment of State," 6 October 2004;
13. UPI "Iraqi Christians Seek U.S. Support," UPI, dateline 19 November 2004.
14. "US Support Seen as Disaster, for Christian Minority in Iraq," Assyrian International News Agency, 23 November 2004.
15. Sabian Mandaean Association of Australia, personal communication, 13 December 2004.
16. BBC News, "Iraq Chaos Threatens Ancient Faith," 20 September 2005 [].
17. The United Nations Refugee Agency, "Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Iraqi-Asylum Seekers," October 2005.
18. United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, "Background Information on the Situation of Non-Muslim Religious Minorities in Iraq," October 2005.
19. Sarah Reinke, "The Mandaeans: A Small Religious Community Searches for Refuge," Gesellschaft für Bedrohte V?lker [Society for Threatened Peoples], February 2006 [].

20. Sarah Reinke, "Mandaeans in Iraq: After Centuries of Persecution – Today Their Very Survival Is Threatened," Gesellschaft für Bedrohte V?lker [Society for Threatened Peoples], March 2006 [].
21. Mandaean Human Rights Group, "The Mandaean Crisis in Iraq" April 2006 []. See also [].
22. United States Commission on Religious Freedom, "Iraq: USCIRF Letter to Under Secretary of State Dobriansky Urges Refugee Protections for Iraqi Religious Minorities, November 2006 []