Page last updated at 03:10 GMT, Sunday, 19 October 2008 04:10 UK

Mandaeans - a threatened religion

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

Dr Layla Alroomi
Mandaeans living in the UK say they need places to practise their religion

Members of an ancient religious group living in the UK are warning their faith could soon disappear.

The Sabian Mandaeans have fled persecution in Iraq. Some have found safety in Britain, but now they claim they have nowhere to worship or teach their children about their faith.

Dr Layla Alroomi, who has lived in the UK for more than 30 years, fears their culture is under threat.

"We feel our community, our religion, our culture is slipping away from our hands," she says.

As a student in Iraq she was imprisoned for her political beliefs, now she is trying to rally the tiny Mandaean community here.

Water religion

But it is difficult.

"We have no priest, if somebody wants to get married in the UK, they can't be because we don't have a place to meet."

She explains that water is at the heart of their faith. They must baptise as often as possible in running water, preferably a river.

"We don't have a temple near water to perform our religious rituals."

There are fewer than 1,000 Mandaeans living in the UK. Their faith, which came before Islam and Christianity, is based on pacifism and began in what is now Iraq before the birth of Christ.

Just last week we heard of the killing of a man, his brother and an eight-year-old boy
Tarmida Salam, Mandaean priest

Before the invasion of 2003, there were more than 40,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq, but they are seen as heretics by Islamist extremists and have been singled out for persecution.

It is thought fewer than 5,000 remain, the rest have been killed or have fled abroad.

"Just last week we heard of the killing of a man, his brother and an eight-year-old boy," says Tarmida Salam, a Mandaean priest who has flown in from Sweden.

He explains how difficult it is trying to keep the faith alive in a community scattered across the world.

"In order to thrive it has to teach its young generation their culture... that is not going to happen."


"Our fear is that if the young people don't pick up the religion... it will die off."

At a house in Surrey I meet three generations of Mandaeans.

"We practise our religion in very difficult circumstances," says Subhi Al-Shather.

What they need, he says, is a temple of their own, known in their language as a "Mandi".

"We can't find it... we don't own land or property."

What happened to minorities having an equal right to the majority?
Marwa Roomi

Deema is just seven. For her birthday she asked for money, not presents, to send to Mandaeans in need.

"Here is a nice place... in Iraq it's quite warry and noisy."

She says she would love for there to be a Mandi in the UK.

"To meet all new people from Iraq, poor and tired, wearing rags - we could give them clothes, drinks, food and money."

'Compelled by duty'

Some in the community believe the British government should help them build their Mandi.

One of them is 22-year-old Marwa Roomi who is studying to be a human-rights lawyer.

"They have a duty... to the Mandaeans here, to those in Iraq still being persecuted and to those in Syria and Jordan who are stuck there because the UK and other countries invaded Iraq."

I ask her why non-Mandaeans should care if her religion should die out.

"It would be clear evidence of what happened to human rights.

"What happened to minorities having an equal right to the majority?"

Crushing Iraq's human mosaic
13 Jul 07 |  Middle East
Iraq's Mandaeans 'face extinction'
04 Mar 07 |  Middle East

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