Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has praised the Sabaean religious sect and pledged to build a temple in Baghdad for its followers, Iraqi newspapers said yesterday. During a rare meeting with the head and prominent members of the sect on Saturday night, Saddam also promised the Sabaeans they would keep their equality with Muslims and Christians.
The Sabaeans believe in God but are neither Muslims nor Christians. In Iraq they are officially recognised as a separate religion. The head of the sect, Sattar Jabbar Hilo, presented Saddam with a translated version of their holy book, Kanza Raba (great treasurer). Newspapers said it was the first time their holy book had been translated into Arabic.
"We will set up a temple for you," Saddam told Hilo and his followers. "Iraqis have religious freedom, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Sabaeans." Iraqi historians say the sect was founded in Palestine in the first two centuries after Christ's death but its members had to flee to Yemen and from there emigrated to Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq. In time they developed an elaborate ritual, particularly for baptism. They trace their roots back to John the Baptist, whom they revere.
Members of the sect say that around 80,000 Sabaeans live in Iraq, and some 15,000 still live in southern Iran. They speak a distinct language, Mandaean, and their religious books are written in Sabaean script.
The Iraqi Sabaeans used to live among Shi'ites in the marshes of southern Iraq, where they earned a reputation as the best canoe-makers and the area's most talented carpenters. But the majority left their land of streams and rivers for Baghdad in the 1950s, adapting to city life by becoming the country's best silver and goldsmiths.