“Reports from Iraq tell of a great number of killings, kidnappings, rapes, forced conversions and evictions.”
By Ivar Ekman in the International Herald Tribune, with thanks to Paul:
SALEM, Sweden: In a small apartment in this town nestled among the cold lakes and whispering pine forests, Yahya Sam is doing his best to save a people. He does it by making myrtle thrive.
It is a challenging task – the plant, which grows wild in Sam’s native Iraq, does not take well to Sweden’s long dark winters.
But he persists. Making the plants prosper, he says, is part of what it takes to help the Mandaeans – a 2,000-year-old religious group, and among the communities hardest hit by the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq – survive in face of what some are now calling a genocide.
“Our traditions and ceremonies form our identity,” Sam, a 47-year-old electrical engineer, said of the myrtle, an integral part of the Mandaean religious rites. The ceremonies “are a way to save us as a people.”
Mandaeans, a distinct ethnic group estimated to number no more than 70,000 globally, have for millenniums been part of the mosaic of peoples that have lived in the lands that today is Iraq. Those few who remain are seeking refuge as far away as possible; most of those who have fled are in Syria and Jordan, some have reached Australia, others Canada, and many have gone to Sweden, because of this country’s generous asylum policies.
Here, they escape the sectarian cleansing that was unleashed by the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But in Sweden they have also found a new threat to their existence: the erosion of identity, and the collapse of community, that comes with being so far from their homeland.
According to scholars, the religion is a fourth sibling to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Like their adherents, the Mandaeans, also known as Sabians, are monotheistic and share many of the same prophets, with John the Baptist a central figure. The similarity has meant that the Mandaeans have survived their varying rulers, even if their history tells of ostracism, harassment and on occasion a violent pogrom.
But the situation for the Mandaeans in Iraq has turned from difficult to catastrophic. Following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the sectarian tensions, violence directed at minorities has become rampant. In the bloody order of Iraq, a tiny group like the Mandaeans, concentrated around Baghdad where the violence has been most widespread, come out among the worst.
Reports from Iraq tell of a great number of killings, kidnappings, rapes, forced conversions and evictions.
Amin Farhan, a 61-year-old veterinarian who fled to Sweden in December, told how he was approached in his Baghdad neighborhood by people he had never seen before, who told him that as a Mandaean, he “had no place in Iraq.” He was given a choice of converting to Islam, of being killed, or of leaving. After seeing a friend gunned down in the street, he decided to leave.
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