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Commentary: The woes of a peaceful and persecuted people

  • Story Highlights
  • Nadia Keilani: My family left Iraq in the early 1980s
  • They are Mandaeans, members of a pacifist religion that was concentrated in Iraq
  • She says Mandaeans were persecuted in the civil unrest after U.S. invasion
  • Keilani: Mandaean religion may vanish now that followers are scattered worldwide
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By Nadia Keilani
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Nadia Keilani is an attorney in San Diego and a member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and of the Arab-American Advisory Committee to the City of San Diego Chief of Police. She is an anti-Iraq war activist who frequently speaks at peace demonstrations.

Nadia Keilani says the Mandaean religion is in danger of disappearing.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- I left Iraq in 1981, at the age of 9. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. My mother, sister and I left together, while my father stayed behind for a few weeks to finish dismantling a lifetime in a country he loved.

At the time of our departure, Iraq was waking up to the suffocating power of Saddam Hussein. For those intuitive enough, it was the ideal time to leave. To my great sorrow, I have never been back. To my even greater sorrow, my children will never experience the Iraq that I loved. That Iraq is now only a memory, replaced by a dark and hopeless country that I no longer recognize.

Whenever someone discovers that I'm from Iraq, it inevitably leads to being asked about my religious affiliation.

I belong to a religious minority called Mandaean, also known as Sabeans or Sabean-Mandaean. We are a Gnostic sect that claims Adam as the first in a line of "teachers" and John the Baptist as the last. Even today, our baptisms are conducted in the same manner that John the Baptist baptized Jesus and others of his time.

Mandaeanism is a pacifist religion that forbids violence even in defense of life. In the anarchy that is today's Iraq, this has proved fatal to the existence of this small but important part of human religious history. Photo Click here to see some of Keilani's photos »

Outside Iraq, few have heard of us. For centuries, Mandaeans lived almost exclusively in Iraq, with a fraction in Iran. In Iraq, we are a sect known to have our own customs, holidays and ancient traditions. Despite our small number -- at our height, only 70,000 of more than 20 million Iraqis -- you would be hard pressed to find an Iraqi who did not know of Mandaeanism.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, lawlessness took hold of the country in large part because of the decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer to dismantle the Iraqi government, including the army and police. For those of us who witnessed the L.A. riots and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the consequences of such a decision and resultant lawlessness were painfully obvious.

As Iraq descended into anarchy and chaos, people relied more and more on religious and tribal affiliations for protection. Lost in the chaos were the Mandaeans. Jewelers and silversmiths by trade, the Mandaeans were considered wealthier than average Iraqis. They also were known not to carry weapons, as explicitly forbidden by the religion. This made them prime targets for kidnappings, murders, rapes and expulsion from their homes.

To be a Mandaean, you must be born to two Mandaean parents. To survive, Mandaean communities must exist in large enough numbers for young people to meet, marry and have children. Since 2003, the number of Mandaeans inside Iraq has dwindled to fewer than 5,000. Tens of thousands are scattered throughout Europe, Australia and the United States. The results of this diaspora are clear: Our religion probably will cease to exist in my children's lifetime.

In 2006, at the age of 34, on a whim, I joined my parents and sisters at the 10th annual World Mandaean Conference, in Canada, along with my husband, daughter and son.

It was an emotional three days, meeting cousins for the first time, seeing an aunt I had not seen in 30 years and -- most importantly -- watching my children's faces as they witnessed a baptism. I am not a religious person, but something moved me as I watched the 60 or so Mandaeans being baptized in our intricate and ancient method.

Maybe it was the unbreakable link with our past or the realization that this precious ritual will soon die out. Either way, I felt more connected to and protective of this ancient way of life than at any other time.

From Canada, I flew alone to Syria. I now had more family living as refugees in Syria than remaining in Iraq. Ironically, 25 years to the day after I left Iraq, I walked into a crowded cafe in Damascus to see two of my aunts and an uncle for the first time since 1981. I also got to meet six of my cousins for the first time.

Through tear-filled hugs, I began to get to know this part of my family. The next 10 days were spent mostly with my cousins, six wonderful young people, all in their 20s, still living in Iraq and eager to live life after years of a horribly suffocating occupation.

I cried as they told terrifying tales of life in Baghdad: how they no longer left the house unless it was absolutely necessary; how they missed their university classes on most days because the roads were too dangerous to travel. Saddest of all, a female cousin spoke of how her only interaction with the outside world came through the peephole in the front door of her house.

This was a stark contrast to the life my siblings and I led in the Iraq of the 1970s and early '80s. That Iraq was filled with bustling streets and total personal safety. There was no crime to speak of, and persecution of minority groups was rare.

Our last night together was bittersweet. I was returning to the safety and comfort of the United States while some of them would return to terror and uncertainty in Baghdad. One cousin in particular, a 25-year-old man with a "macho" demeanor, broke down and cried at the thought of going back to Baghdad. He kept repeating "I'm afraid, I'm afraid." We hugged him as the tears streamed down our faces.

That trip changed my life. I felt I had to save these precious young lives.

Upon my return to the U.S., I contacted members of Congress and asked for assistance both in publicizing the plight of the Iraqi Mandaeans and in helping my family members find refuge in the United States. The process was slow and painful. These meetings took place as the debate over illegal immigration raged, and some congressional staffers could not bring themselves to differentiate between the humanitarian and legal entry I was requesting for my relatives and the illegal immigration they fiercely opposed.

In March 2007, I learned of a "sponsorship" process that had been newly expanded to permit resettlement in the U.S. for a greater number of Iraqi refugees with family already here. I immediately completed the necessary forms and waited while those of my relatives fortunate enough to have been granted refugee status in Syria went through the lengthy process that would eventually bring some of them to the U.S.

Finally, in early 2008, more than a year and a half after our tear-filled farewell, I received an e-mail from one of my cousins, titled "happy news." They had been accepted for resettlement in the U.S.

My uncle, his wife and their four children arrived in the United States in late June 2008. They amaze me with their optimistic view of life, their unlimited drive and their unbreakable spirit. After five months, my young cousins are working, going to school and speaking better English every day.

Many of my relatives, including an 80-year-old aunt, remain in Syria. Others risked their lives to make it to Western European countries only to find themselves filled with loneliness, away from the rest of their family, much less the Mandaean community.

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A handful remain in Iraq, living under terrifying conditions. It is of them that I think every time I hear hollow declarations of optimism about the state of affairs in Iraq.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nadia Keilani.

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