By Maryam Dehkordi
November 26, 2020
In 2015, a joint meeting was held between members of the Iranian Mandaean community and Ali Younesi, Iran’s then Special Assistant to the President for Ethnic and Minority Affairs. It was hoped that through these discussions, the state-sponsored discrimination against one of the most little-understood ethnoreligious minorities in Iran might finally come to an end.
Ganzora Najah, head of the Sabean Mandaean Association of Iran, addressed Ali Younesi directly during his opening remarks, telling him: “We consider you among our sympathizers.”
Najah went on to describe a litany of civil and legal issues faced by Iranian Mandaean citizens, including discrimination in the classroom, problems enrolling at university, not being allowed to register Mandaean names for their children, and being blocked from government employment. He, too, expressed hope that these issues could be resolved.
Termida Sahi Zahrouni, a well-respected figure among the Mandaeans of Khuzestan, was present at the meeting along with a group of elders representing the thousands-strong community in Iran. He tells IranWire how the talks unfolded that day in 2015, and how his hopes were raised for a brighter future for his people – but also of how they came to be dashed, prompting him to leave Iran for good.
Sahi Zahrouni has a long beard and wears the long white robe of a Mandaean cleric. He is a termida: a priest who performs rituals such as baptisms, weddings and burials in accordance with the ancient Mandaean faith. Today he publishes videos in Mandaic, Arabic and Persian.
“At the meeting with Mr. Younesi,” he recalls in his usual warm, kind voice, “all those loved ones who were present spoke about the problems of the Mandaeans.
“After the revolution, we could not even be hired as a guard at a government office. Our educated children either left Iran or took up our ancestral occupations, which are goldsmithing and trading in gold.
“At the end of the meeting, when it was my turn, I reached into my pocket, pulled out my ID card and told Mr. Younesi that this ID card was all we had as Iranians; we had no other rights. No study, no employment, no choice of name, nothing. But we are peace-loving people, and we wish to attain our rights through peaceful means.”
The meeting with Ali Younesi had taken place during the first term of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. At the time, the Mandaean contingent’s principal request was that Mandaeans be formally recognized as a religious minority in the Iranian constitution, alongside Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews.
As followers of a monotheistic, gnostic religion that reveres such figures as Adam, Abel, Noah and John the Baptist, Mandaeans had been pronounced “People of the Book” by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but continued to face persecution nonetheless.
“There was no objection to the proposition at that meeting,” says Termida Sahi Zahrouni. “Ali Younesi told us, ‘It is true that the Constitution does not mention the Mandaean religion alongside other faiths, but in my opinion there is no barrier to making this official’.”
According to this cleric, Younesi went on to tell the assembled group: “You did not present your case well in the past. You need to do more to introduce yourselves. Our book, the Holy Quran, has repeatedly recognized the Mandaean religion independently alongside the divine religions. Shiite and Shafi’i jurisprudence have also recognize you independently, but there was no understanding that the Sabeans were our own dear Mandaeans.”
Termida Sahi Zahrouni says he went on to discuss in detail the problems Mandaeans have faced in Iran, beyond their general demands. “I pointed out the contradictory behavior with regard to the Mandaean community. Adham Street in Ahvaz, a long street near the Karun River, has long been inhabited by Mandaeans. Many Mandaean homes in this neighborhood have been confiscated, and in some cases handed over to the municipal authorities, without the owners’ consent. I asked Ali Younesi, ‘Is usurpation not a sin? Are not the owners of these properties, which have been taken away without their consent, the victims of a sin?’.”
Citizens Only in Elections and Warfare
According to those present at the meeting, Ali Younesi went so far as to call the Mandaeans “the most human rights[-compatible] religion in the world” because, he said, they were “not proselytizing to change the religion of others.” He re-iterated that they were Iranians, and citizens of what he called “this land”.
“Unfortunately,” Termida Sahi Zahrouni says, “Mandaeans are only citizens of Iran at election time, and while their votes are being counted. Mandaeans are also called up for military service like other citizens. But we have no Mandaean teachers, engineers or even ordinary office employees. How can we accept these remarks? We are barely even second-class citizens in Iran.”
Ganzora Najah, the most prominent figure among the Mandaeans of Ahvaz, has reflected that during this period, “we really felt the government was thinking about us. The opportunity to express our concerns and problems was very valuable.”
Fruitless Conversation Compels More Mandaeans to Emigrate
With great regret, Termida Sahi Zahrouni says, he decided to leave the country after realizing their efforts to improve the lot of Mandaeans had come to nothing.
“Before meeting with Mr. Younesi,” he says, “I had tried for years to change the attitude of the people of Ahvaz and surrounding cities toward my compatriots, and I had some success. By meeting with Mr. Younesi, who had been part of the system since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution and had been Minister of Intelligence, we made him were aware of the problems of religious minorities.
“When we received no feedback, I became determined to emigrate. I knew that nothing would change for the Mandaeans in Iran.”
For many years, the Mandaean priest had owned a gold shop in the Kian area of Ahvaz. He loved to study and kept himself informed, reading the Quran from cover to cover. “I try not to make any judgments about others without knowing their opinions,” he said. “It hurt me to be judged for my beliefs.
“A few years before I left, I remember, two people who were bringing gold to the shops in Ahvaz were robbed. The police’s prime suspects were the Mandaean gold sellers, and they shut down our businesses for three days. They took me to the police station, time and again – on the third day, I said: ‘If you have any evidence against us, arrest us. If not, don’t bother us anymore.’ The owners of the gold had no complaint [against the Mandaeans], even stating they had left their gold bags with us many times in the past and they were sure it wasn’t us that had stolen it.”
Looking back to before the 2000s, Termida Sahi Zahrouni says, Mandaeans have long been systematically discriminated against by the Iranian government and also shunned in the socio-cultural sphere. “In the cities, people would point us out and call us “impure”; if we went shopping in the market, we had to point from afar which fish we wanted, and if the children were with us or if we accidentally touched the fish, the seller would declare that everything they had for sale was now ‘impure’. It was very annoying.”
Over time, he says, he tried to change this mentality by ensuring Mandaeans were present at events of importance to the Arab and Muslim populations of Khuzestan, and to hold debates with people of different creeds.
“As you probably know,” he says, “among the Arabs, when someone dies, it means a great deal to attend the mourning and funeral ceremonies. My cousin and I decided to attend the rites in Ahwaz and all the surrounding towns when any of the Arab elders died, as representatives of the Mandaeans. It took ten years, but the result is that now the people of Khuzestan look on the Mandaeans as their own brothers and sisters. This is very valuable to us.
“But while it remains impossible for children to study safely, and while even those who have been able to study by hiding their beliefs ultimately have no share in the Iranian labor market, I grow frustrated. I am in contact with many Mandaeans in Iran. Most, I know, are waiting for the conditions to be right for them to leave.”