By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
The Quran groups together "Believers, Jews, Christians and Sabians" (or
Sabaeans, also known as Mandaeans) as those who believe in God and the Last
Day and do what is right (Sura 2:62 and 5:69). Despite that, Shi'ite clerics
in Iraq have issued fatwas against the Mandaeans, deeming they are not "People
of the Book" and therefore not considered worthy of "protection": right to
life in exchange for subjugation and payment (Sura 9:29).
As followers of John the Baptist, Mandaeans traditionally live close to rivers
where they regularly participate in ceremonial baptismal cleansing. They speak
a dialect of Eastern Aramaic and traditionally work as fine craftsmen,
primarily jewellers. They are pacifists and their Mandaean faith prohibits the
bearing of arms. As totally un-protected non-Muslims, Iraq's Sabian Mandaeans
are amongst the most endangered and vulnerable people in Iraq. The situation
for thousands of Mandaean refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan and Syria is
not much better.
On 14 November, SBS radio in Australia broadcast a documentary by Czech
investigative reporter Ika de Detrich entitled "Mandaeans -- the last Gnostic
community at the brink of extinction?" The 32-minute audio can be accessed at
< http://www.radio.sbs.com.au/language.php?happening=5595&language=Czech >.
MANDAEANS -- AT THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION?
Ika de Detrich's radio documentary addresses both the suffering of the
Mandaean remnant in Iraq who are just hoping against all odds to get out of
the country alive and the suffering of the thousands of Mandaean refugees and
asylum seekers who are struggling with trauma and terrible hardship in Syria
De Detrich speaks with John Clugston, the legal advisor for the Sabian
Mandaean Association of Australia (SMAA). Clugston is certain that Muslim
fundamentalists are waging a systematic campaign to eradicate the Mandaean
community and its culture through killings, rapes, forced conversions and
Importantly, Clugston observes that while other groups are also suffering --
notably the Christians -- the suffering of the Mandaeans is particularly acute
because they are such a small and localised community. The Mandaeans do not
have co-religionists in Turkey, Syria or Jordan to assist them, shelter them
or care for them in their distress. Furthermore, unlike some other
ethnic-religious diasporas, the Mandaean Diaspora in the West is truly
miniscule and without funds or political influence.
Ika de Detrich explains that in Iraq the Mandaean remnant has no rights
because the law is based on Islamic Sharia. They have no Mandaean schools and
no Mandaean publications. Mandaean children are forced to attend Islamic
schools where they face aggression and constant pressure to convert to Islam.
They are always at risk.
De Detrich reports that in 2003, before the US-led invasion, there were around
60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq living between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Attacks on the community commenced as soon as the regime was toppled.
Multitudes of Mandaeans have been killed while thousands have fled for their
lives. Today only 5,000 remain. Some 2,000 Mandaeans are refugees or asylum
seekers in Jordan while some 10,000 are in Syria. They are a small, vulnerable
and relatively voiceless minority amongst 4.2 million displaced Iraqis.
The radio documentary contains a moving testimony from SMAA founder, Alla
Khamas, who migrated to Australia in 1981. Khamas recently made a visit to
Jordan to assist relatives who had fled Iraq. He laments that conditions in
Jordan were far worse than he ever could have imagined. He says he could not
hold back his tears when he saw the suffering and hardship of Mandaean
refugees and asylum seekers forced to live with no money, little food, limited
electricity, poor sanitation and deteriorating health.
As Ika de Detrich notes, Jordan closed its borders two years ago due to the
difficulties it was having coping with the influx of refugees. Then on 15
October 2007 Syria closed its borders. (Note: This will be disastrous for
Iraq's Christian and Mandaean remnants if/when conflict erupts in northern
Iraq over the status of Kirkuk.)
De Ditrich talks by phone to Taniana Onano, an Australian immigration agent
visiting clients in Damascus. Onano describes the suffering of Mandaean
refugees in Syria as "heartbreaking" and "unbelievable". She says that because
the refugees do not have the right to work, they have no money for rent or for
school or for anything. Some refugees work illegally for cash, out of
desperation, but they are exploited: underpaid for their work and overcharged
for rents. Onano says they are all terrified of being arrested or deported and
they are all terribly depressed. She believes the suffering is much worse than
she is able to observe. Onano explains that, while Syrian authorities give
some assistance to those formally recognised as refugees, those with only
Temporary Protection status get no assistance at all. (Note: Syria's "open
door" policy was in the name of pan-Arabism, so Assyrians and Sabian Mandaeans
might not be as welcome as Arabs.)
Futher to this Ika de Ditrich reports that Temporary Protection status is no
longer given. Iraqi refugees in Syria are now given an "appointment card".
This means that until refugee status is approved the Iraqi refugees have no
legal protection or status in Syria and are forced to wait an anxious six
months or more before they can even talk to a UNHCR official. Furthermore,
there is great concern that the Iraqis will be deported as soon as their visas
As Ika de Detrich reports, fatwas issued against Mandaeans are valid
everywhere, not just in Iraq. Mandaean priests are especially at risk because
they are seen as the bearers of Mandaean religion and culture and their
distinctive appearance makes them easily recognisable. De Ditrich reports that
many Mandaean priests have become hunted fugitives, forced to stay on the move.
Doubtless Ika de Ditrich is right when she asserts that the Mandaeans are
unlikely to be ever able to return to Iraq safely, even after "stabilisation".
Their fate and future is in the hands of other countries prepared to take them.
"Who will take them?" she asks. "According to the 1949 Geneva Convention and
1977 additional protocols, governments waging an armed intervention in another
country have a duty to the affected civilian populations."
De Detrich reports that in four years the USA has only accepted some 500 Iraqi
refugees including a handful of Mandaeans. However, American policy has been
changing and De Detrich's figures are not up to date. America is finally
opening its doors, albeit slowly (details at link 1).
According to de Detrich, no Mandaeans have ever been accepted into the UK.
The SMAA reports that since January this year, 7 Mandaean families have been
accepted into Australia while 184 applications have been refused. Refugees
applying from Syria and Jordan have no right of appeal after rejection.
According to de Detrich, in August 2007 the Australian government, under
pressure from the UNHCR, agreed to take in 13,000 Iraqi refugees, 35 percent
of them Christians and Mandaeans. However, Mandaean applications continue to
fall on deaf ears.
SBS subsequently challenged the Minister for Immigration, MP Kevin Andrews,
over this. His response can be heard at link 2. Andrews contradicts de Detrich
and claims that the "35 percent" relates of the percentage of refugees that
would come from the Middle East. Apart from that, Andrews says the policy
remains "non-discriminatory". (It might be "non-discriminatory", but surely
the policy would be more humanitarian if it were to prioritise and be quick to
take in those who are most desperately in need.)
The SMAA is "baffled" and "bewildered" by this pattern of rejections. . The
Mandaeans, they note, are just "desperate for help".
1) U.S. to allow 7,000 Iraqi refugees. 15 February 2007
U.S. Will Speed Entry Of Refugees From Iraq
Officials Say New Measures Will Allow 12,000 to Be Admitted in the Next Year
By Paul Lewis, 22 Sep 2007
Invaders and allies ignore Iraq's humanitarian crisis
By Haroon Siddiqui, 18 Nov 2007
Refugees International < http://www.refugeesinternational.org/ > reports:
"Despite the US government's promise to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in FY
07, only 1,608 were admitted by September 30; only 450 were admitted in
October towards an FY 08 goal of 12,000. UNHCR has referred 12,607 cases to
the US, and will continue to refer more in the future. Until now, the
processes have been unforgivably slow, leading to large numbers of vulnerable
Iraqis becoming more destitute as they anxiously wait for their interviews or
2) Mandaean refugee rejections: A case of Yes Minister? Andrews replies.
Caroline Davey, SBS, 16 Nov 2007
Mandaeans in Iraq (published March 2006)
After centuries of persecution - Today their very survival is threatened
By Sarah Reinke, Gesellschaft für bedrohte Volker (GfbV) (Society for
Obscure Mandaean Faith Risks Extinction in Iraq
By Ian Wilheim, 2 Nov 2007
Sabians of the Qur'an
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