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LISA MULLINS: We've heard a lot about religious tensions in Iraq. That mostly refers to the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but there's plenty of tension for Iraq's religious minorities, too. Among them, a small sect known as Mandaeans. They're not Muslims, they're not Christians, they're agnostic ï¿½ and many of them have been forced to flee Iraq because of persecution. Some have found refuge in Worcester, Massachusetts, where reporter Tina Antolini paid them a visit.
TINA ANTOLINI: On a chilly afternoon, the scent of roasting meat and onions fills a cramped apartment in Worcester. More than a dozen men, women, and children are gathered here for a Sunday meal. Upon arriving, Wisam Breegi embraces two small boys, who welcome him like an uncle. They all pack into the small kitchen, where a duck soup is being prepared.
WILLIAM BREEGI: his is very traditional Mandaean dish. You will taste it nowhere else, even in Iraq, unless they're a Mandaean family.
ANTOLINI: Breegi has dedicated his life to saving the Mandaean people and their faith. He, himself, emigrated to Massachusetts from Iraq as a refugee during the First Gulf War. For more than a decade, he worked as a medical researcher. But a couple of years ago, he quit his job to devote all his time towards resettling Mandaean families in the U.S.
BREEGI: It came to a point for me that I felt that I have to do more. The community was massacred.
ANTOLINI: Breegi has appealed to the UN and the US Congress for help. And now, working with a local refugee aid organization, he's managed to bring more than 100 Mandaeans here to Worcester, where they now feel free to practice their faith. In Iraq, they often hid their religious identity because of fear of persecution. Mandaeans follow one God known as ï¿½The Great Lifeï¿½ and recognize several prophets ï¿½ giving special status to John the Baptist. But while their rituals revolve around Baptism, they're not Christian. And over the two millennia of their existence, they've largely been isolated from other religious groups. Nathir Tayeh says some in Iraq's majority Muslim population consider Mandaeans infidels.
TAYEH: The word that they used was ï¿½filthy.ï¿½ So a Mandaean is a filthy person. And even with the kids ï¿½ my daughter here, they force them to pray in the school, although she's not a Muslim. And for the kids, they don't play with her because she doesn't pray. So she is filthy.
ANTOLINI: After the Iraq war, Mandaeans say discrimination that had been simmering under the surface for decades, perhaps even centuries, morphed into full-fledged violence. Everyone here has a story of a family member hurt, kidnapped, or killed. Jabar Saeed was a jeweler in Iraq. After his store was robbed, his life threatened, and his wife kidnapped, he says he came to the conclusion that Mandaeans can no longer live there.
SAEED: Iraq is history to us now. It's not home anymore. If I were to be offered all the treasures of the world to return back to Iraq, I would not do it.
ANTOLINI: But continuing the faith outside of Iraq is not simple. The Mandaeans don't believe in conversion. You have to be born into the religion, in order to be Mandaean. And under current refugee resettlement policies, families are spread across the globe.
BREEGI: They managed to save the people, but I think they are killing the faith.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: The United States has a special responsibility to the Mandaeans, because it was through the United States invasion of Iraq that the process was set into motion that has now brought them to the verge of extinction.
ANTOLINI: That's Nathaniel Deutsch. He's a religion professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Deutsch, Wisam Breegi, and others are calling for Priority 2 or ï¿½P2ï¿½ Visa status, which would allow Mandaeans to emigrate to this country because they're part of a persecuted group. Iranian Mandaeans already have that status, says Nathaniel Deutsch.
DEUTSCH: And really, it would not take an enormous amount for the United States government to make a difference. That's the thing. The numbers are small enough ï¿½ we're talking about hundreds of families in Syria, hundreds of families in Iraq, a few hundred families in Jordan.
ANTOLINI: In December, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom delivered a report to Congress on the situation of religious minorities in Iraq. It recommended P2 Visa status for some of those groups, including the Mandaeans. A State Department official says they're paying close attention to the commission's findings, but until now, he says, they haven't wanted to identify any religious group in Iraq as more persecuted than any other ï¿½ and so haven't given P2 Visa status to any of them. Back in the apartment in Worcester, Naji Dawod Tamol appeals to the creator in the ancient Mandaean language, a form of Aramaic. It's a prayer he's said in secret for all the 57 years of his life. Here, though, he's openly telling people he's Mandaean for the first time. The Worcester community is still waiting for a priest so they can resume their baptismal rituals. But if they can build the community here, the Mandaeans say, there's a chance that both the people and the faith can flourish. For The World, I'm Tina Antolini in Worcester, Massachusetts.
MULLINS: If you'd like to see pictures of Mandaeans in Worcester, Massachusetts, go to theworld.org