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Ancient sect fights to keep culture alive in U.S.

For Iraqis who follow the teachings of John the Baptist, weddings are an opportunity for the small community to come together as believers try to preserve their heritage far from their ancestral homeland.
Endangered Religious Sect
Maha Abdirazag, of Oak Park, Mich., applies a touch of lipstick to her sister Dunia Majdob before her wedding at the Mandaean Association of Michigan Hall in Ferndale, Mich., on Friday.Gary Malerba / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the bride and groom arrive at the Mandaean Association, the Middle Eastern salad is ready and flower petals are lightly strewn across the floor.

For these Iraqis who follow the teachings of John the Baptist, weddings are an opportunity for the small community to come together as believers try to preserve their heritage far away from their ancestral homeland.

As young and old dance to American and Arabic songs inside the suburban Detroit mandi, the Mandaean house of worship, a dozen young Mandaean-Americans getting fresh air outside reflect on their role in Mandaean society: This crew of cousins is the "next generation" whose parents and grandparents believe will determine whether the Mandaean faith lives or dies in the United States.

"Being first generation is going to be the hardest," said Eva Majdob Rojas, 26, of Monroe. "We have to either stick to those really old traditions or break the ice as individuals and get our parents to understand that."

After more than 2,000 years of practicing their Gnostic faith almost entirely in Iraq and Iran, some Mandaean-Americans fear their ancient beliefs may fade in the U.S. unless they can agree on a cultural course that keeps traditions intact while dealing with the pressures of American society.

The world's roughly 60,000 Mandaeans have been coming to the United States in small numbers for several decades. Surges occurred at the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, after the Gulf War in the early 1990s and after the 2006 bombing of Iraq's al-Askari Mosque, which set off sectarian violence.

Aramaic dialect
Now, an estimated quarter of the population is in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, while 10,000 remain split between Iran and Iraq. The remainder are scattered from San Antonio to Sydney. Several thousand are thought to live in the U.S., according to Mandaean-American leaders, but no formal totals are kept.

Members of Mandaean organizations from across the globe are convening in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday to discuss ways to keep their religion alive in the diaspora.

One of the focuses of the conference will be language. Linguistically, the Iraqi community has all but lost its connection to the spoken Aramaic dialect of its Mandaean forefathers.

Charles Haberl, director of the Middle East Studies Center at Rutgers University, said that while Arabic and German translations of Mandaean holy scripture are available, the young Mandaean-American community is cut off from its texts because most cannot read Iraqi Arabic even though they speak it.

"When you grow up as a Christian, you know the story of (Christianity). We can't even read the Ginze," the central Mandaean religious text, said Mais Mandwee, 21, of Kalamazoo. "It's a shame."

Suhaib Nashi, general secretary of the Mandaean Associations Union, hopes English translations of sacred texts will be produced as a short-term fix.

"I am pushing to start a quick translation establishment to change the Aramaic to English, at least to give Mandaean children some understanding of their religion so we buy some time," Nashi said.

Marriage is a 'pressure point'
Time, however, is short for the generation of U.S.-born or U.S.-raised Mandaean youth approaching marrying age: Mandaeans must marry a fellow believer in order to have Mandaean children.

"Marriage is a real pressure point for the Mandaean community," said Nathanial Deutsch, a professor of literature and history at the University of California Santa Cruz who has studied Mandaeans. "First of all, there is no mechanism for conversion. That would have to be introduced."

Rojas was among the first of the younger generation of Mandaean-Americans in Michigan to be married. When she exchanged vows with a Mexican-American in October 2008, only one of her more than 10 uncles was in attendance.

"I didn't expect that much," Rojas said.

Parental understanding of mixed marriages is rare.

"The way I teach my kids: You have to get married (to) a Mandaean. I push them. This is very hard for them to understand," said Anees Rabie, president of the Mandaean Association of Michigan.

Still, not all younger Mandaeans revolt against their society.

"What I love about my religion and my culture is that it brings all of us together. I enjoy hanging out with my cousins who I haven't seen in months and it's beautiful because you walk into a room where everybody loves you and everybody wants to see you," Mandwee said. "I have a lot of friends who don't get to do that."

For the younger generation, attempting to reconcile their American upbringing with Mandaean customs can be bewildering.

Adam Mandwee, 18, of Kalamazoo, a cousin of Mais Mandwee, said "we're surrounded by non-Mandaeans and we create so many different relationships and networks and then it comes around to marriage and I have to search for a wife and then the question is 'Where do I start? I don't really even know these people.'"

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