Canadians working to rescue Mandaean people on brink of extinction in Iraq

In the years since Iraq’s descent into sectarian chaos, two of Ray Siger’s relatives were kidnapped. One was rescued with a ransom; the other, taken at gunpoint after his high school graduation, simply vanished. 

They were targets because they are Mandaean, a pacifist pre-Christian religious group that follows the teachings of John the Baptist and is now on the brink of extinction in Iraq.

Before the 2003 war, more than 50,000 Mandaeans lived in Iraq; by 2011, the population had plummeted to a little more than 3,500, according to Human Rights Watch. 

They are considered one of the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Mandaeans in Iraq have been killed, kidnapped or forced to convert to Islam with terrifying regularity,

Mr. Siger, a director with the Mandaean Canadian Community Association who is working to rescue his fellow Mandaeans and get them out of the region, said. 

“This is a group that is very peaceful, very learned, and they’re going extinct and nobody is saying anything about it,” he said. “Give it a few years, it’s the end for this religion in this region.”

 Chuck Konkel, a Toronto police inspector who came to Canada as a post-Second World War refugee, is one of the citizens working with Mr. Siger. 

Mr. Konkel and Iraqi-born lawyer Ghina Al-Sewaidi formed a group urging their fellow Canadians to organize a new wave of private refugee sponsorships, similar to the one that brought tens of thousands of boat people migrants from Southeast Asia in 1979, to rescue Mandaeans, Yazidis and other religious minorities from the world’s largest humanitarian emergency. 

So far they’ve enlisted support from two Catholic parishes and several police chaplains, but they hope for a groundswell of public support.

“We want to motivate Canadians to see they can do something, through private sponsorship,” Mr. Konkel, who is also a former federal Conservative candidate, said. 

“These are people with few connections to families here. They are at risk. They are suffering. We can’t save them all, but if we start with one let’s see what we can do.”

Threatened by the militants of the Islamic State as well as by Shia paramilitary groups and local authorities, the Mandaeans, who are religiously prohibited from taking up arms to defend themselves, often felt they had nowhere to turn. 

Some received a single bullet in an envelope and were given 24 hours to flee. Thousands now languish in refugee camps in the countries that surround Iraq and Syria, where they live in often harrowing conditions. Mr. Siger sees it as his duty to shepherd as many to safety as he can. 

Canada is unique among refugee-receiving countries in that it allows private citizens to combine in groups of five to sponsor a refugee, a practice that was launched in response to the Southeast Asian migration crisis.

Sponsors are responsible for helping the refugee and his or her family find housing, learn the language, find a job and get acquainted with the culture, as well as provide some financial support in the first year after arrival. 

Canada has pledged to take 3,000 refugees from Iraq this year and 10,000 from Syria over the next three years. There are growing Mandaean communities in Sweden, the United States and Australia, among others. But as the once tightly knit Mandaean population scatters around the globe, they face a new struggle for survival that may redefine their faith. 

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has expressed support for efforts to bring more refugees to Canada through private sponsorship. In a statement, CIC said the country’s commitment gives priority to vulnerable groups. 

In Syria, in concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Canada prioritizes eight groups for resettlement, including women and girls at risk, people with physical protection needs (which include persecuted ethnic and religious minorities) and sexual minorities. 

There are nearly 1,000 Mandaeans in Canada, primarily in the Toronto and Vancouver areas, according to Mr. Siger – a small portion of the 50,000 or so spread around the world. Theirs is a pre-Christian, gnostic system of beliefs that follows the teachings of John the Baptist. 

The sight of Mandaeans dressed all in white performing baptisms on the river bank, their primary religious ritual, has become increasingly rare in the years since the U.S. departed Iraq. 

Erica Hunter, head of the religions department at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, described the Mandaeans as victims of a concerted ethnic cleansing.

“The Mandaean population in Iraq has plummeted 90 per cent,” Prof. Hunter said. “Many have left and gone to Syria, where they’ve jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, and many have been killed purely because they are Mandaean in Iraq.” 

Prof. Hunter said for years Mandaean children have been kidnapped and forced to marry outside their faith.

They have also been targeted for robberies and kidnappings because they are perceived to be wealthier than most Iraqis, in part because of their long tradition of working as jewellers. It’s clear that if the religion is to survive, it will be mainly in countries far from its traditional home. 

The migration out of the Middle East is creating new obstacles for the faith, particularly intermarriage and the maintenance of religious tradition. In countries such as Canada where adherents are scarce, it’s increasingly likely that those born into the faith will marry outside it. Under current rules, they would cease to be Mandaeans, as would their children. 

Conversion, prohibited for now, could offer prospective spouses a way to maintain the faith. But a discussion has begun in the community about how some of these things might change.

Yuhana Nashmi trained as a religious leader but now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he is a social worker and is among those who have begun a sensitive discussion on how the faith could adapt to its new circumstances. 

“The community is having a debate socially, religiously, culturally on how to redefine things,” Mr. Nashmi said. “The priests are trying, and the educated people are trying, to revisit the texts and interpret things differently.”

One of the challenges facing Canadian Mandaeans is that a proper baptism requires an active body of water, usually a river, something that’s hard to manage in a Canadian or Swedish winter. 

Still, other priests have been saying that municipal tap water could be acceptable, Mr. Nashmi said. 

“[They] will have to go through a complex, convoluted process, and whether they manage to survive that, I don’t know,” Prof. Hunter said. Canadian Mandaeans do not yet have a formal place of worship, nor do they even have a priest who can perform religious ceremonies. 

When Mr. Siger, 34, was married last year, he paid to bring in a priest from Texas. Mr. Siger said the community is still establishing itself in Canada. It needs a centre where everyone can gather, he said. But the first priority is getting fellow Mandaeans out of the danger zone. 

“The people who need urgent help are [in] Syria,” Mr. Siger said. “Every day we lose somebody, and for us that’s a significant percentage of our population.” 

by JOE FRIESEN

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