July 19, 2010 was the Sabean Mandean new year. Followers of the ancient religion gathered in the Tigris river in Baghdad for the beginning of their festivities by cleansing themselves in the water. Sabeans were upset at how few attended. In the 1980s there were over 100,000 in Iraq. By 2003 there were only 35,000 left. Today there are only 3,500-5,000 in the country. Of the 28 religious leaders that were in the country during Saddam’s time, only five are left. Many have been killed by insurgents and militias who consider them apostates. More have fled the country including their top leader Sheikh Sattar Jabbar al-Hulu who now resides in Australia. The situation has grown so bad that Sabeans have asked that their entire community be relocated to another country for their safety.
Sabeans originated in southern Iraq around the 2nd century A.D. They are followers of John the Baptist, and some think they started as a breakaway sect from Judaism. They speak their own language that is a derivative of Aramaic, which is an ancient Semitic one that early Jews spoke. A person can only be born into the religion, and they are also pacifists, which has complicated their plight in Iraq since they can’t fight back, and are finding it harder and harder to procreate since so many have either left or been killed in Iraq. Some fear that they will cease to exist in the country.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq’s last Sabeans take sad New Year dip in Tigris,” 7/20/10
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom,” May 2010
- “Iraq Report – 2008,” December 2008