[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Sunday, 4 March 2007, 11:10 GMT
Iraq's Mandaeans 'face extinction'
By Angus Crawford
BBC News, Damascus

Islamic militants forced Selwan to jump into a bonfire
The Sabian Mandaeans - one of the oldest religious groups in the world - are facing extinction, according to its leaders.

They claim that Islamic extremists in Iraq are trying to wipe them out through forced conversions, rape and murder.

The Mandaeans are pacifists, followers of Adam, Noah and John the Baptist.

They have lived in what is now Iraq since before Islam and Christianity.

More than 80% have been forced to flee the country and now live as refugees in Syria and Jordan.

Even there they do not feel safe - but they say western governments are unwilling to take them in.

Victim voices

There are thought to be fewer than 70,000 of the Sabian Mandaeans spread across the world - only 5,000 are left in Iraq.

Mazen's leg with machine gun wounds
Mazen's legs are peppered with machine gun wounds

Nine-year-old Selwan likes watching cartoons and playing football.

But he is too scared to leave his flat. The other children tease him.

He has burns all down the side of his face and on 20% of his body.

He was kidnapped by Islamic militants who forced him to jump into a bonfire - because he is Mandaean.

Now his family lives in a tiny flat in a slum in Damascus.

I meet Luay. He is too scared to be identified and does not want to use his full name.

He was dragged off the street by armed men and forcibly circumcised - a practice not allowed in the Mandaean religion.

He is 19 and is now unlikely ever to find a bride from his own faith.

Worse, he was forcibly converted. That means in the eyes of those same extremists, if he now declares himself Mandaean he is apostate.

To the extremists, that makes him a traitor to Islam, who may be murdered. He says he will not be safe in any Muslim country.

'Convert or die'

Then there is Enhar, raped by a gang of masked men in front of her husband - because she would not wear a veil.

Our ethnic minority and our ancient religion will die off
Kanzfra Sattar, Mandaean bishop

Mazen used to be a prosperous jeweller. Now he lives in a cramped flat, with his wife and children. Water drips through the ceiling.

His legs are peppered with machine-gun wounds, he can barely walk.

Shoaki wears a Manchester United hat and shows me the scars where a gang beat and cut him with a knife - he watched his brother murdered in front of him.

Mandaean elders use words like annihilation and genocide - they believe Islamic militants, both Sunni and Shia, offer them two choices - convert or die.

"Some will not consider us people of the book... they see us as unbelievers, as a result our killing is allowed," says Kanzfra Sattar, one of only five Mandaean bishops left worldwide.

'Wait in line'

He believes they are a litmus test for modern Iraq - in a secular state these doctors, engineers and jewellers would thrive.

Kanzfra Sattar
Kanzfra Sattar is one of only five Mandaean bishops left

In the country as it is without law and in the grip of religious extremism, he fears they will be destroyed.

"We are small in numbers, we ask all the governments of the world to extend a hand of help," Kanzfra Sattar says.

He says he wants the West to accept his people as refugees.

I ask him what will happen if they do not - he replies simply: "Our ethnic minority and our ancient religion will die off."

The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, says there may be as many as a million Iraqis who have fled to Syria.

"The numbers that will be resettled are tiny compared to the very large numbers that are here," says Laurens Jolles, the head of a UNHCR team.

He acknowledges that the Mandaeans will just have to "wait in line", with other vulnerable groups.

Roughly two million Iraqis have fled to Syria, Jordan and Turkey. But there are no plans to welcome large numbers to the West.

The US has offered places to 7,000, while Britain says it will consider every case "on its merits".

So the Mandaeans wait in line.

Shoaki puts it more simply: "Here, we live in despair."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific