“As old as the water itself”

The Mandeans are an ethno-religious minority population that originates in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They were displaced from Iraq after 2003 as a result of extreme violence and persecution. Their Gnostic religion predates Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Unable to defend themselves due to their pacifist religion, the 60-70,000 adherents were scattered throughout the world. There are about 2,500 Mandaeans in Worcester, MA.

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PRI’s The World. October 06, 2016 · 2:30 PM EDT. By Matthew Bell

On a recent Sunday morning, several dozen people wrapped in pristine white cotton robes lined up on the shoreline of Lake Quinsigamond. They came to be baptized, but they’re not Christians. 

They are Mandaeans, members of a tiny religious minority with theological roots in Jerusalem and ancient Babylon. 

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By Brad Petrishen. Telegram & Gazette Staff. Posted Sep 3, 2016 at 6:00 AM Updated Sep 6, 2016 at 11:40 AM

WORCESTER – The scent of incense contrasts sharply with the splashing in the water and the shrill oaths uttered in an ancient tongue.

“Kusta!” the Mandaean priest – one of several dozen in the world – says in a near-dead language, as the man he is baptizing repeats the Mandaic word, which means “truth.”

Both men and dozens on the beach are dressed in flowing white robes. Their dress, beards and features connote Biblical times. Indeed, they revere John the Baptist and consider themselves descendants of Adam, though there is much more to their intricate religion buried in detailed, poetic texts.

The man being cleansed closes his eyes as the priest splashes water over him three times. The priest, using his left hand, pulls the man to his side and submerges him three times underwater.

The priest thrice uses his wet finger to draw a line across the man’s forehead, from right to left. Three times he brings a palm full of water to the man’s mouth, and three times the man drinks.

Oaths are exchanged, as is a handshake, also called a kusta. A small wreath of myrtle, a Mediterranean plant, is removed from the man’s finger and placed under his turban, at which time the priest unleashes a string of holy words muffled by the thin white cloth covering his lengthy beard.

The ritual, choreographed down to the minutest detail, is far from complete. After aquatic consecration, a lengthy ceremony on land begins. The priest smears sesame on every forehead, taps every head dozens of times and through it all speaks in Mandaic, Arabic and sometimes English, softly at times, loudly at others, but always with a stunning, frenetic energy and rapidity.

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WORCESTER — They were kidnapped and murdered in Iraq, persecuted because of their ancient Mandaean religion and pacifist beliefs that made them easy targets amid chaotic, sectarian violence.

They fled in droves and found an unlikely home in Worcester, where 2,500 refugees now make up what is believed to be the largest Mandaean community in the United States and second-largest in the world outside the Middle East.

The Mandaeans have found safety and acceptance since they began arriving here in 2008, freely practicing a monotheistic religion that predates Christianity and Islam. But they still do not have a temple — a “mandi” for baptisms, marriages, and birth and death rituals — and whether one is built could determine if they continue to call Worcester home.

“Work is not the anchor, living in an apartment is not an anchor, the mandi is the anchor,” said Wisam Breegi, a leader of the Mandaean community.

A Mandaean Darfash.
A Mandaean Darfash. – Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

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