Iraqi Sabean minority in peril
Baghdad - After close relatives were either killed or abducted by Muslim Shia militias and criminal gangs, Sarmad Kamil, one of the few thousands of the Sabean religious minority living in Iraq, is trying to keep his faith to himself.
He joined a Shia Muslim tribe to gain its protection in a country where Islamic State (ISIS) militants have killed scores of people of all faiths, including fellow Sunni Muslims who do not accept the group’s extremist approach, and sectarian and ethnic violence is widespread.
Despite the measure of protection his membership of the Shia tribe affords, Kamil still wants to emigrate to Europe because religious intolerance is increasing in Iraq.
A government employee and a father of three, Kamil said several of his cousins had been killed or abducted for ransom in the lawlessness that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Many Sabeans fled the country.
“We’re very worried about our safety here because religious tolerance and the rule of law are diminishing day by day,” Kamil said.
Sabeans give Yahya bin Zakarriya, known by Christians as John the Baptist, a special status, higher than that in Christianity and Islam. The community reveres John the Baptist as one of its greatest teachers and credits him with performing miracles of healing through baptism.
Sabeans view healing through baptism as a magical process that bestows immortality, purification and physical health. This belief, especially the purification of the soul and the physical soundness, explains why Sabeans opt for living near the banks of Iraq’s two main rivers, Tigris and Euphrates.
Oday Asad, a community spokesman, said Sabeans once numbered 75,000 in Iraq but the number had dipped to 12,000 by 2016 as followers escaped to the West.
“The majority of the followers have left the country to escape the violence,” he explained. “The Sabeans see no future here amid the continued killing and abductions targeting them.”
Both Sunni insurgents and Shia militias have targeted Iraq’s religious minorities and the weak government has been unable to protect them. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled their homes in northern Iraq in the face of an ISIS assault in 2014.
ISIS trapped thousands of Yazidis on a mountain, depriving them of food and water. The militants took hundreds of Yazidis captive, forcing women and children into slavery and killing the men.
Christians also left their homes and possessions when ISIS captured the city of Mosul in 2014, and Shia militias have confiscated empty homes owned by Christians in Baghdad.
Sabeans were no exception. Many community members, mostly working as goldsmiths, were abducted or killed by gangs believed to be linked to Shia militias. In one incident, armed men killed three Sabeans before robbing their goldsmith shops in Baghdad.
There are no records of the number of those abducted or killed, but community members estimate they number several hundred.
Kamil said his brother, who owns a jewellery shop in the Shia dominated city of Kut in eastern Iraq, was ordered by an unspecified armed group to pay a large sum of money every month to keep his shop untouched. The brother paid the protection money until he fled with his family to Europe.
To avoid his brother’s fate, Kamil sought protection from a renowned Shia tribe in Baghdad. In return Kamil donates money when needed for the tribe’s solidarity fund. Kamil also participates in all Shia religious activities in his neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad.
“We’re very worried about our safety,” he said. “When I have enough money to travel, I will not hesitate to follow my brother and relatives.”
Asad said Sabeans have always been part of Iraq’s religious and ethnic mosaic and throughout history were a peaceful group sharing with the other Iraqis “the good, bad and worst times”.
“We hope that security and peace will be restored in this country so that we remain part of Iraq’s future, but events are going in the opposite direction,” he said.