Revering John the Baptist, these Iraqis sustain an ancient religion
One main challenge will simply be educating other Iraqis about the Mandean faith. Many Iraqis remain suspicious of Mandeans. In past years, some Iraqis have pelted Mandeans with stones from a nearby highway overpass during the Golden Day of Baptism celebrations, which mark the anniversary of John the Baptist's baptism of Jesus. "People say we are praying to the stars or the angels or that we have no God," says Sheik Sattar. "We are praying to God--nothing more."
In fact, Mandeans are neither Christian nor Muslim nor Jewish, but their faith bears some similarities to each. Their holy book, the Ginza Raba, includes some of the same books as the Old Testament, including the book of Genesis, and they look to Adam as their first messenger. They regard Jesus as a false messiah. "Christianity was changed to make it more simple," says Sheik Majid Abdullah, another top church leader. "We stayed like the roots on the trees."
As in Christianity, Sunday is their holy day. But some of the Mandeans' practices are more akin to those of Judaism. Mandeans can eat only fish with scales, for example, and they must also perform ritual fasting 36 different days of the year. As in Islam, divorce and drinking alcohol are forbidden. In Iraq, Mandeans have adopted many Muslim cultural practices to better blend in, even adopting Arabic names instead of using their religiously rooted names in the ancient Mandean language.
Source of life. With John the Baptist as the Mandeans' most important teacher, baptism is, unsurprisingly, their most important rite. (The name Sabaean Mandean means one who is baptized and has knowledge of God.) Religious leaders must wash themselves three times in water to purify the body and soul before performing any religious rites. Weddings are also conducted almost entirely submerged in water. And followers must participate in several baptisms a year, usually in running water, which reflects their belief that living water is the source of life.
When they pray, Mandeans face north, using the North Star to orient themselves. This way, they believe they are facing God and the forces of light. Many of their beliefs center on purity, both in spirit and body. Religious leaders must marry only virgins and must be free from any kind of disease. Before a leader assumes the church's top position, other leaders trace his family history back seven generations to ensure his history is pure.
For the Mandeans in Baghdad today, life is still full of uncertainty. The annual Golden Day of Baptism celebration usually draws three times the number of people as this year, but gas shortages and security fears kept many away. And there are new concerns. Many are unsure whether Iraq's new government will carve out a place for them. "We are now getting afraid because maybe Islamic fanatics will take power," says Sheik Majid. "Maybe they will make us close this temple." Even after some two millenniums, their faith is carried on a day at a time.
WHO: Adherents born into this little-known Middle Eastern religion.
NUMBERS: At least 10,000 in Iraq; unknown numbers in Iran and elsewhere.
PRACTICES: Jewish, pre-Christian, Christian, and Gnostic influences.