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Iraq: Old Sabaean-Mandean Community Is Proud of Its Ancient Faith

Iraq's Sabaean-Mandean religious community is one of the smallest and most peaceful in Iraq. Sabaeans insist their religion is one of the oldest in the world and consider themselves to be the followers of the message given to Adam, whom the Bible says is the first man created on Earth.

Baghdad, 14 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Many in Iraq know Sabaean-Mandeans as a peaceful though strange religious community, more known for silver and gold craftsmanship than their religious beliefs.

Satar Jabar Helo is the head priest and spiritual leader of the Sabaeans in Iraq, a small community of some 75,000 believers.

Sabaeans also live in neighboring Iran. There are a total of 150,000 members worldwide.

Sabaeans are a lonely and reclusive community. Helo says they have not proselytized since 70 years after the death of Jesus Christ, when 365 Sabaean priest were killed in a single day in Babylon.

There is only one way to become a Sabaean, according to Helo: to be born to parents who both belong to the faith.

Helo, dressed in a white robe, with a long beard and flowing hair, speaks about darkness and light, good and evil, life and death, and the role of human beings in these unfolding cosmic events.

He says Sabaeans pray three times a day to God in Aramaic, a language close to the one spoken by Jesus Christ: "In the name of the living Great, in the name of the One and the Only One who is the world of pure light who gives a soul, gives health, peace and peace of heart and forgiveness of sins with the force of the explosions of light."

A Sabaean house of prayer, which bears a cross, resembles a Christian church. There is a difference, however, the Sabaean cross is half-covered with a piece of cloth.

Helo says the symbol has nothing to do with Christianity and Sabaeans do not consider Jesus Christ to be the son of God. The Sabaean cross has a different meaning.

"The symbol [of the cross] -- Darf -- symbolizes two branches of the olive tree [put on one another] making a plus sign, and the plus sign represents four sides of the universe," Helo says. "And God's light is symbolized by pure silk cloth [put on the sign]."

Helo says Sabaeans have no doubts their religion is older than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

"We believe our religion is older than Judaism, Islam or Christianity, and has nothing to do with those religions," he says. "The teaching we have is inherited generation by generation by copying [our sacred book] by hand. We believe that he who re-writes the book from the first to the last page will receive great blessings."

Helo says Sabaeans share some similarities with both Muslims and Christians. "We are similar with Islam in describing the God as one and indivisible," he says. "And we, like Christians, believe in the secret powers of baptism and give immense importance to Prophet Zakariya [John the Baptist]." Some say it is one of the reasons that Sabaean communities prefer to live near the water.

However, the differences seem to overweigh the similarities. Helo says the teachings of the Sabaeans was sent to Adam, the first human being on earth, by an archangel.

Sabaean dogma is written in the holy book "Kinzeraba," or "The Holy Treasure." The book describes light as fighting against darkness or evil. White and other light tones are the favored colors of Sabaeans.

Helo explains why: "Wearing white means belonging to the world of light and means wearing the clothes of angels. We [priests] do not wear anything but white. We pray only when we wear white. All colors come from the color white. You can't make any colors from black."

Sabaeans need to obey the provisions written in "The Holy Treasure." They are forbidden to kill, lie, commit adultery or theft, or consume alcohol. They are also forbidden to mourn the dead, and must fast 36 days a year, abstaining from eating meat, eggs, and fish.

Members of the community should help poor people, making no distinction between co-religionists and outsiders. Wafah Sabah, a woman in her 20s, tells RFE/RL that Sabaeans treat one another as members of a family.

"We are all brothers and sisters. If somebody needs help, we will help," Sabah says. "If you help another person, another day he will help you. We, Mandeans, are one family; we are all brothers and sisters. There is no difference between this man and that girl."

However, nowadays Sabaeans are often disliked by radical Muslim groups.

"We suffered from [the Saddam Hussein] regime but our main grievance is that we suffer as a nation which is [always] treated as third-rate,” says Helo. “Not only Sabaeans [suffer] but also our Christian brothers [in Iraq]. This is a complex [of this society]. They consider those of us who are not Muslims to be atheists. And it is permissible to kill or rob an atheist.

Helo says that some radical Shi'a Muslim clerics have delivered fatwas, or religious orders, condemning Sabaeans.

"A courageous Muslim cleric should go and read our sacred book and see that what we follow is a pure teaching," Helo says.