Behnaz Hosseini*–Sabean-Mandaeans are one of the numerous religious minorities in Iran. Despite being considered by some high-ranked religious clerics as one of the monotheistic religions, it is not recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Constitution. They are emigrating at increasing rates, with inflows mainly to European countries, the United States, and Australia. Difficult living conditions, lack of civil liberties, and religious discrimination are the major motives to emigrate.
The number of the Sabean-Mandaeans, according to non-official statistics, has dropped to just 2,000 people. It was estimated at 10 to 20,000 before the Islamic Revolution.
One of the religious rituals of the Mandaeans is “Daily Baptism”, which is often performed in flowing rivers. For this reason, Iranian Mandaeans have often lived in the southern regions of the country, especially in cities such as Ahvaz where Mandaean clerics performed religious rites along the Karun River. Khuzestan is one of the most deprived provinces in Iran and has one of the largest populations living in poverty due to the eight-year war and lack of adequate financial resources. The same is true of Sabean-Mandaeans, who have been living in this province for a long time. However, there are some important reasons why many followers of this ancient religion have left their hometowns and chosen to emigrate as the only way to escape the challenges of life in Iran.
Mandaeans do not have the right to work in governmental agencies; they are denied under various pretexts to be granted freelancer or self-employment permits, and in some cases, their businesses are shut down.
One of the members of this community who emigrated to Australia, believes that unemployment and consequent difficulty earning income has a double impact not only on Mandaeans, but also on all religious minorities in Iran. Mandaeans do not have the right to work in governmental agencies; they are denied under various pretexts to be granted freelancer or self-employment permits, and in some cases, their businesses are shut down.
He also hints at the most populated Mandaean city in Iran and, referring to the rapid migration of his fellow believers over the last four decades, says: “As a result of increasing economic difficulties, the migration trend of Mandaeans has been exponentially up in recent years. At present a significant number of us in Ahvaz are living in absolute poverty; in addition, our children are traumatized and carrying an enormous psychological burden due to the identity crisis created by the regime; we cannot even choose and officially register a Mandaean name for our children because the state has always instilled a great fear of being interrogated in us. After all, we are called infidels and impure Muslims in the mosques, which has had a negative impact on our collective emotions.”
As a Persian literature graduate, he adds: “For decades, the Mandaeans have been forced to choose the ‘Muslim’ option to be admitted to university. Although I have also had this experience and hid my identity just like everyone else, I must emphasize that almost all Mandaeans are proud of who they are. If they cannot enter the university in their country, they will seek another way to study. It would be considered to be a rational reason for Mandaean migration because everyone wants to study and get ahead in life; however, the Mandaean children know that considering their religious identity and real name, there is no place to progress for them in Iran. Hence they will have only two options: either get used to all obstacles and oppressions of the regime like everyone else or emigrate.”
It seems that the remarks of this person, who has asked for anonymity because he lives in Iran, cover only part of the reason for Mandaean emigration. There are many people among religious minority elites in Iran who believe that in addition to the economy, discrimination of the regime against the followers of this religious group as a serious human rights violation has been the most influential factor in this regard.
Another follower of Mandaeism says regarding his personal experience of dealing with the judicial authorities: “In 2014, one of my relatives was beaten up in Shooshtar Bazaar. Although the lawyer tried his best to assert his rights before the court, the final court decision was issued in such a way that not only was the culprit not arrested, but they reminded us in a roundabout way that any further efforts would be in vain. Why? Because our religion is different and we are not Muslims.
He, who in his own words has been a Mandaean cultural activist since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, adds: “Under the Shah, there was almost no intent to emigrate among us because we wanted to stay in our country and collaborate with our people, regardless of their religion and belief, to eliminate all shortcomings. However, with the advent of the Islamic Revolution and the subsequent isolation of other religions, many Mandaeans were forced to choose immigration as a way out of inequality, poverty, and discrimination.
This report was just part of the Iranian Mandaean community’s untold stories. What has not changed in the last forty years has been the regime’s pressure on religious minorities, leading to their emigration from Iran.
Mandaeism is one of the oldest religions in the world whose followers claim to be the descendants of Shem, one of the sons of Noah, and worship the prophet John the Baptist. Their population in Iran is estimated to be less than ten thousand; it should be noted that this figure has been taken from surveys carried out before the new migration trends in recent years. Although there are also Mandaeans living in other countries such as Iraq and Palestine, followers of this religion in Iran have always had a keen interest in Iranian cultural achievements before the Islamic Revolution.
In recent years, many efforts by the Mandaean community to push the regime to recognize this religion in the Islamic Republic of Iran have failed; this knot could have been untied by Ayatollah Khamenei, but it seems that he has himself tied it.
*Behnaz Hosseini, a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford, has written several books on religious minorities in Iran and Iraq, including Yārsān of Iran, Socio-Political Changes and Migration