PRESENTATION AT THE LONDON UNIVERSITY CONFERENCE
CHAIRMAN SIR HAROLD WALKER (EX. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ)
May the 5th 2007
The Sabean Mandaean are one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the middle east.
The name Mandaean is derived from Aramaic which means knowledge. Their Arab neighbors call them Sabean from the Arabic word Saba meaning cleansing in the water as they do so during prayers and baptism.
The religion has strong ties with ancient Gnostic and has many aspects in common with Judaism, Christianity and Islam but is also different. It is in fact the only living Gnostic religion today. There is strong emphasis on dualism of the world of light and that of darkness. Adam is considered the first prophet and Yahia (John the Baptist)is the Greatest Teacher.
The Mandaean language is Aramaic which is the language of the liturgy and still spoken by some of the Mandaean of Iran.
Mandaean value family, marriage children and pay great emphasis to peaceful existence and pacifism. They have lived in southern Iraq and Iran for centuries practicing their faith peacefully. Their numbers were estimated in seventies
to be around 60,000-70,000.At present their numbers inside Iraq is much less.
In recent times and particularly since 2003, thousands have fled Iraq to the neighboring countries for safety. According to UNHCR and I cote "The Mandaean who carry no weapons, who will not kill and have no social establishment to defend them are the first and an easy target". According to the human right watch the majority have already left Iraq.
The killing, the kidnapping, the rape of women and young girls ,the forced conversion and the ransacking of their shops and properties have escalated deliberately and disproportionately to their small numbers. Fatwas issued by some Islamic clerics calling the Mandaean kafar(blasphemous), negis (impure),accusing them of witch craft and calling on Muslims to convert them to Islam.
In march 2007 the BBC reporter Angus Crawford filed a report from Damascus .He spoke of this community facing extinction at the hands of extremists who are trying to wipe them out through forced conversion ,rape and murder.
The recent escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq is forcing many communities to leave causing huge refugee crises in the neighboring countries according to the UNHCR recent conference in Geneva last month. Estimates of 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and a million in Jordan and others in Egypt and EUA, in addition to two million internally displaced are latest casualties of the conflict.
Among the most vulnerable are the Iraqi minority communities according to Minority Right International UK most recent report mostly the Christians, Mandaean, yazids and others. Although they make up 3%of the population but according to the UNHCR office in Syria they represent a third of those registered for asylum. This exodus has not only caused hardship and uncertainty but could mean the end for these ancient communities and will adversely change the ethnic mix of the Iraqi society for ever.
I was in Syria early this year. I witnessed the miserable conditions these communities live in .No school or formal education for their children. No work permits for the young adults. No health care for the elderly and sick. They are living on their meager saving which they brought with them from Iraq which is running short by the days. There are mechanisms in place to support those who experience torture and violence.
I met women who have been raped, children who have been kidnapped, old women moaning the loss and death of their sons, adults whose bodies still carry the wounds of the bullets.
Selwan is only 9 years old with half of his face and body burnt after kidnapping when his parents could not afford to pay the thousands of dollars ransom. And Lowai who is 19 and who was forcefully dragged out of his college and circumcised to convert him to Islam. A 34 years mother of three (not to be named) who was raped by 4 men in front of her husband because they knew her to be a Mandaean who refused to wear the Veil. I met a Mandaean jeweler who was blinded by acid been thrown in his face while his shop was ransacked.
Like them I felt that very little has been done by the outside world so far to help their situation.
These minority religious groups who are refugees can not go back to Iraq .There is no safe place for the Mandaean for example to return to inside Iraq.
Western governments have a moral duty to settle them in safe countries as happened during the Balkan war, otherwise these ancient ethnic and religious minority groups will disappear for ever and what a loss and tragedy for the mix and diverse cultural ethnicity of Iraq and the world if this is would be allowed to happen.