Sunday, March 29, 2009

Endangered Christians and Mandaeans

There are hotly fought battles in Jewish History that have left their imprint on the Jewish people. At one time, the Samaritans were tens of thousands in number. Actual blood was shed in battles with them. Now they are about 700 strong, living in three towns in Israel and on the West Bank.

The destruction of our temple is commemorated every year on the Jewish calendar with a 24 hour fast. The Babylonians who destroyed the first temple left us with our second national language, Aramaic, the names of the months on our calendar as well as a form of writing our alphabet that differs markedly from the original.

It is not only archaeology that provides a glimpse into the distant past, but the living as well. There are people and communities alive today who are remnants and echoes of ancient history. The Middle East contains communities that are descended from the first converts to Christianity. The majority of them speak Arabic and pray in Aramaic, the language known to Christians as that of Jesus and to Jews as that of the Talmud and of the Kaddish prayer. There are however about two million people who use Aramaic as a spoken language. Some live in villages in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. I knew a rabbi who had an unusual classmate in yeshiva. The boy came from Iran and enrolled in Yeshiva. He did not need any translation of the Talmudic text. He had spent a great deal of time with his grandmother, who spoke Aramaic to him.

Across the Middle East are Maronite Christians, who are Chaldean rite Catholics whose priests may be married and pledge loyalty to the Pope in Rome. Then there are the Assyrian Christians who are have their own hierarchies separate from Rome. There is some difference in the historical narrative of each of these two groups on the history of their faiths.

The Mandaeans, who are also known as Sabeans are a monotheistic, gnostic faith that dates back 2000 years and is indigenous to Iraq and Iran. Their scriptures are written in Aramaic. Their central symbol is a cross, the bottom of which is covered with a piece of cloth. The cross of the Mandaeans has nothing to do with the Christian cross. To the contrary, they are critical in their scriptures of Jesus, instead venerating John the Baptist. From Abraham to Moses, they are critical of Jewish prophets.The Mandaeans are pacifist and prohibit circumcision. They permit no converts and no intermarriage.

Many Islamic scholars believe that Mandaeans were among the "people of the book" who were considered worthy of second class citizenship and protection from harm. Modern forms of Islam which have been mislabeled as fundamentalist have withdrawn protection from the Mandaeans and from the Christians living in Muslim countries. Mandaeans living in Iraq and Iran have been subject to murder, rape and forced conversion. Christians as well have fared poorly across the Islamic world.

All of the political and social upheavals that have endangered Mandaeans and Assyrian Christians has created the need for flight from persecution. There is a diaspora to America, Sweden Australia and other places that has endangered the survival of the Mandaean way of life as well as the linguistic and cultural continuity of Assyrian exiles. What is happening to the chain of knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation? What will be lost in this generation to posterity?

In some places such as Syria, there is encouragement given to the speakers of the language. In Iraq and under the Palestine Authority, the Assyrians are endangered. Some have fled abroad and others seek to do so.

Muslim countries in which non Muslims are persecuted need to feel pressure to treat their linguistic and religious minorities better. There have been tolerant forms of Islam which were once politically dominant. Indeed, it was the Turkish empire that became a place of refuge to Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The central Jewish religious figure Maimonides achieved a level of political prominence in Egypt comparable to Henry Kissinger in the United States. It is worth noting that as a child, Maimonides had to flee Spain when a local Muslim leader commenced harsh persecutions of Jews. There is a level of religious tolerance that has varied widely in Islamic history. More generous times and Islamic legal opinions should be invoked in defense of modern religious minorities in Muslim countries.

Until some form of stability returns to the Middle East, Mandaeans and Assyrians are endangered. Americans should make known to their government the concern that the physical, cultural and linguistic survival of these communities is of concern to us. Taking in refugees from these groups affirms America's place as a refuge from persecution. It also assures that two small groups with unique views of the world's past will not be lost to future generations. Taking in the Mandaeans and the Assyrian Christians would give them a reasonable shot at survival at this troubled stage of their history. It is the right thing to do.


bataween said...

Dear Joe
The comment you left on my blog this past weekend inspired me to write a comment about the plight of non-Muslim minorities
with three links to Rudi's and your blog. We seem to be on the same wavelength - like to exchange links?

Magdeburger Joe said...

I already posted your link on both my sites. It is a pleasure to assist you in your humanitarian focus