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Precarious existence of Iraqi Mandaean community

In Damascus, Mandaeans struggle to maintain their age-old customs
(Stephen Starr/IRIN)

Among the estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria are several thousand Mandaeans, a small religious minority on the verge of extinction in Iraq, and lacking support in Syria.

Several organizations, including the Mandaean Society in Syria and the Spiritual Mandaean Council in Baghdad, have united to assist refugees coming from Iraq by organizing accommodation and support groups for widowed women, but because their numbers are small, Mandaeans as a community are particularly vulnerable.

Support in Syria has been difficult to obtain, either from the Syrian authorities, or from religious organizations, said the Mandaean Associations Union.

Some sources say there are 60,000-70,000 Mandaeans worldwide. They originated from Iraq and revere, among others, John the Baptist.

Like many Iraqi refugees they are facing difficult times financially. “Divorce among Mandaeans in Damascus is on the rise because people can’t get jobs and are running out of money. Over the past three years many have been forced to return to Iraq as their savings have dried up,” said Suhair, a Mandaean and former project coordinator for the US Agency for International Development in Baghdad.

Once prominent goldsmiths, lawyers and doctors in Iraq, Mandaeans continue to be kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam or to leave the country, according to the Mandaean Human Rights Group in Damascus.

A 2009 UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report, said extremists in Iraq continued to target members of non-Muslim religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans.

According to Suhair, who also volunteers for the Mandaean Associations Union, the worst cases are often women who, without headscarves, are easy targets. “Many women have been attacked for not wearing a `hijab’, while others have been forced to marry Muslim men,” she said.

The situation of the remaining 3,500-5,000 Mandaeans in Iraq remains of serious concern as they continue to be singled out by Sunni and Shiite extremists as well as criminals on the basis of their religion, profession and perceived wealth, the UNHCR report said.

Meanwhile in Jaramanah, a neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of Damascus populated largely by Iraqi refugees and Christians, Sunday mornings see couples married and group baptisms using centuries-old rituals.

Sam has returned from Germany to wed Jasmin, a 27-year-old Mandaean who travelled from Baghdad to Damascus. “We couldn’t risk doing something like this in Iraq, it’s just too dangerous. In Damascus there is a Mandaean community to help us organize,” she said.

Resettlement prospects

Cases for third country resettlement from Syria can only be assessed individually, according to UNHCR in Damascus. “Like other groups in Iraq, Mandaeans have faced violence at the hands of sectarian and criminal groups. UNHCR's provision of protection and assistance is informed by the actual needs of individual refugees, regardless of their ethnic or religious background,” said UNHCR spokesperson Farah Dakhlallah.

UNHCR does give special consideration to refugees “who have special needs based on various vulnerabilities,” but religion is not counted as one of those.

“Because we are spread across 22 countries I think Mandaeans will become extinct in 30 years,” said Hamid, an English teacher who fled Baghdad in 2006. “Western countries don’t want to help us, they don’t care. What future do we have?”

As no group submissions for the resettlement of Iraqi refugees are accepted by the UNHCR, Mandaeans who have been resettled are now located across the globe - in Australia, Sweden, the UK, the USA, among other countries.

“Today we are in serious trouble. No one will ever go back home to Iraq,” said a tearful Nasir who travelled thousands of kilometres from Cardiff in Wales to watch his wife and seven-year-old-child be baptized in Damascus.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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