Iraq's last Sabeans take sad New Year dip in Tigris.
"It's a real tragedy to see our community being whittled down like this," said the sheikh, the deputy leader of the Sabean minority which has an MP in the Iraqi parliament.
"Before, we would have crowds of people in the water from dawn till dusk," he said.
"Here we are in the early afternoon and there's nobody left already. It's really sad, everybody is emigrating," he said at Tuesday's ritual on the Tigris riverbank in the Jadriya district of central Baghdad.
Also known as Mandaeans, the Sabeans traditionally speak a variety of Aramaic, the language of Christ.
They call Adam their prophet and revere John the Baptist - "saba" is Aramaic for baptise, "manda" means knowledge.
They trace their roots to pre-Christian times and some scholars believe the sect was a heretical branch of Judaism that spread south through the land of the two rivers, or Mesopotamia, in the second century AD.
At the start of the 1980s, they numbered more than 100,000 in Iraq but the community was already on the decline during the Iran and Kuwait wars waged by Iraq's now executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Already the community had been cut to no more than 35,000 members when the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam, with Sabeans spread in six cities: Baghdad, Arbil, Diwaniyah, Kut, Amara and Basra.
Today their numbers are estimated at around 5,000.
"We are a part of Iraq, and Iraq is a part of us," said Sheikh Aziz, who was also dressed in white cloth and carrying a long cane in his hand.
"We have the same history, the same past and the same future, and we want security and stability to return to this country so that all the members of our community can reunite like one big family."
Even their leader, Sheikh Sattar Jabbar Al-Hulu, was not in the Iraqi capital for this week's New Year rituals, which run for three days to mark the creation of the world.
He was with his family in Australia, home of the world's largest Sabean community.
"Many members of our community have been killed, robbed or threatened. Fear is driving down our numbers," said Uday Salam, 28, after submerging his head in the water three times "to purify the flesh, the soul and the spirit."
"It's mostly the young who are leaving," said the Iraqi army officer.
In the upmarket district of Jadriya, where Saddam's ministers used to have their homes, the Sabeans have a temple with a cross on the roof covered by white cloth to symbolise purity.
"Since 2003, about 800 members of our community have been killed because we have nobody to protect us. They have been killed by Al-Qaeda, other militias or mobsters," said Seif Rifaat, 20, the community's spokesman.
Their skill as goldsmiths has also made them targets. In April 2009, armed heists on two Sabean-run jewellery shops in Baghdad left seven dead, including three Sabeans.
The origins of the sect remain a mystery. According to their leaders, the religion was born in Mesopotamia, displaced to Jerusalem and then returned to its country of origin.
Now the Sabeans are scattered from Iraq to Australia, with communities also in Iran, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.
Daily NewsEgypt 2009
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