Sabaean Mandeans


July 22, 2003

BAGHDAD, IRAQ--Tanks rumbled past on a nearby bridge Monday and U.S. helicopters chopped through the air overhead, but down by the bank of the Tigris River was a scene from thousands of years ago.

Hundreds of Sabaean Mandeans -- a tiny sect that views John the Baptist as savior -- waited in line in gauzy, white tunics to submerge themselves in the ancient river.

"We expect there will be problems," said Satar Jabar Hello, 49-year-old leader of the world's Sabaean Mandeans, blessing a bearded, old man with holy water during the ceremony. "We believe in peace, but others maybe do not."

Water is everything to the Sabaean Mandeans, who are baptized in it, get married in it and receive their last rites by the river's edge.

The group, which believes that John, and not Jesus Christ, was the true messiah, was allowed to worship under Saddam. But the regime seized several of its temples, and the group was not allowed to build new ones outside Baghdad. Like all groups in Iraq, they say many followers were among the estimated 300,000 people murdered during Saddam's 23-year reign.

They say the future may be even worse for their sect as fundamentalist Islamic groups begin to assert control in a new Iraq. Majority Shiite Muslims, long oppressed by Saddam, appear poised to take a commanding role in the emerging government, much to the dismay of the Sabaean Mandeans.

"Under Saddam, we were more free, because he was against the Shiites and that protected us," said Furat Jabar, a woman waiting to be blessed. "But now, the Shiites hate us and want us dead."

Many Sabaean Mandeans expressed the same concerns during the all-day ritual.

In the ritual, followers first cleanse themselves, then pray before a cross-shaped symbol, adorned by a white baptismal cloak and an olive branch -- signifying light, life and peace. Rites are conducted in a dialect of Aramaic -- the language spoken in the Middle East in the time of Jesus.

They then are baptized in the river before sacrificing chickens and sheep that are eaten in a feast in tribute to the dead.

Today and into Wednesday, believers will lock themselves in their homes while they await the return of angels sent to heaven to thank God and ask his blessing for the new year.

"This is the greatest day, when the earth was brought together and the stars were set in their places. It is the beginning of the physical universe," said Hello.

Followers say there are between 80,000 and 200,000 Sabaean Mandeans in the world. The vast majority are in Iraq, but some also live in southern Iran and tiny communities have emigrated to the United States, Canada and Europe. In Iraq most of the followers work as gold- and silversmiths, and many are fine craftsmen.

The religion combines some aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Gnosticism, but it is considered separate from each of them.