Persecution of the Mandaeans religious minority in Iran

Persecution of the Mandaeans religious minority in Iran

BY: Nahal Mohammad

17 December 2018


Mandaeans (Sabeans)

The Mandaean minority lives in different areas of the Middle East, including the Karoun region of al-Ahwaz in Iran extending to the Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq. There is no exact figure documenting the current population of this religious minority, but according to unofficial statistics, the total number of Mandaeans globally is somewhere over 170,000 people. Most of this population came from southern Iraq and al-Ahwaz in southwest Iran; after the 2003 Iraq war, however, the majority of Mandaeans fled to Western countries, including Australia due to persecution. Due to this mass migration, by 2007 the Mandaean population of Iraq, which previously numbered approximately 120,000 stood at around 5,000; it is not believed to have increased to any significant degree since then [1].

While Mandaeans are the largest non-Muslim minority in Ahwaz, there are no precise details of their population or distribution; as with other religious minorities, they are not recognised by the Iranian regime’s constitution, so no official records are available. Mandaeans and other religious and sectarian minorities are subjected to various forms of discrimination and persecution, including being effectively denied any recognition of their identity by the ‘Islamic Republic’ regime’s Constitution. This failure to even acknowledge their existence is the biggest cause of discrimination, leading many to take the painful decision to emigrate from their ancestral homeland [2].

Mandaeans also live in various other cities in the Ahwaz region, including the eponymously named capital, Ahwaz, as well as in Khafajiya (Susangerd), Mashor (Mahshahr), al-Mohammerah (Khorramshahr), al-Falhiya (Shadegan), Hamidiyeh, Khor Mussa (Sarbandar), and Howeizah.

According to unofficial estimates, at least 25,000 followers of the Mandaean faith currently live in the Ahwaz region, mostly in communities along the Karoun River. The Mandaeans themselves believe that the total number is more than 50,000, although, as in Iraq, religious persecution and the regime’s failure to recognise their most basic rights means many have migrated to Western nations, such as Australia and the United States [3].


A proud heritage

In a recent interview, Abu Daniel, a Mandaean Ahwazi activist, explained that Mandaeans, followers of a gnostic religion are the oldest known residents of Ahwaz. The majority of the remaining local Mandaean population is still based in the city of Tester (Schuster in Farsi) on the Karoun River which their ancestors founded and built millennia ago; the descendants of the founders lived there in peace for countless generations until the armies of Nader Shah the infamous 18th century Persian ruler, descended on them during his conquests across the region, occupying the city and perpetrating massacres and atrocities which still haunt the collective folk memory of the Mandaean people. 

From that time to the present, the Mandaean minority has been subjected to sporadic waves of persecution by successive Iranian rulers during periods of Iranian occupation. During the reign of the Ahwazi Arab ruler Sheikh Khazal in the 19th and early 20th centuries when Ahwaz was an autonomous emirate, Mandaeans had the same full rights and protections as all other citizens, said Abu Daniel, adding that the records of the period show that Mandaeans and other minorities were treated as equal citizens with their Arab Sunni and Shiite Muslim counterparts, with the presence of the revered Sabean tomb from that period near the Mezan on the banks of the Karoun River  confirming that Mandaeans’ faith and customs were treated with respect and dignity by the rulers of the time.  However, he added, these rights were eroded following Iran’s 1925 annexation of Ahwaz. Their situation further deteriorated in the wake of the 1979 revolution, with the Mandaean community suffering the worst persecution in its modern history since the ayatollahs’ hard-line theocratic regime seized power.

Abu Daniel explained that the Mandaeans have traditionally been best known for trading in gold and jewellery, prospering and coexisting peacefully with Muslims in the region, as well as other minorities, for centuries. Since the advent of the theocratic regime in Tehran, however, Mandaeans have been collectively subjected to persecution and harassment due to their faith, leading many to emigrate for fear of impoverishment, oppression and worse at the hands of the Iranian authorities.


Mandaeans after 1979

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity are the only religious minorities recognised by the Iranian leadership, being given partial freedom legally to practice their religious ceremonies. This law, which is itself, selectively applied, does not apply at all to Baha'is, Yarsani, Mandaeans and other religious minorities in Iran, who face persecution, harassment and multiple violations of their basic human rights at the regime’s hands, including being denied education, employment opportunities, and commercial licenses due to their religious faith. In addition, their homes and other properties are routinely confiscated, and their temples, religious sites and even graveyards are vandalized or destroyed.  They are denied any right to legal restitution for any of these acts [4].

Because of security concerns, the Mandaeans do not give precise details about their situation in Ahwaz or even the rest of Iran," Sami Khamisi, a writer, researcher and former member of the Mandaean Society, explained in a recent interview with BBC Persian, adding, “In 1996 we asked for statistics from Mandaeans in Ahwaz, but we were able to get only 60 percent of the statistics [requested] because many families wouldn’t provide details because of fear, so the available statistics are only for 60 percent of the population of Mandaeans in Ahwaz” [5].

Sami al-Khamisi added that Mandaeans, like other religious minorities in Iran, are forced to hide their religious identity for fear of persecution, living in a constant state fear due to the Iranian regime's policy towards religious minorities. He also highlighted the tragedy of being forced to migrate to other countries in order to escape persecution, injustice and discrimination for their religious beliefs.

The failure to mention Mandaeans in the Iranian constitution led to relentless persecution by the security forces and regime officials, al-Khamisi explained: "We cannot read the law, we cannot work in the municipality, we cannot own a supermarket, our doctors are not allowed to work in hospitals, we do not have any government records”, he revealed, pointing out that the regime’s sole acknowledgement of Mandaeans is “one identity card”, and adding, “under these circumstances, many Mandaeans migrated to other countries to obtain their basic rights.”


Persecution of Mandaeans

Abu Daniel recounted more details of the regime’s callous persecution of Mandaeans, revealing that they are demeaned even in death: "Our graves have been vandalized in several cities in Ahwaz by unidentified individuals, but they appear to be extremist elements in the Iranian regime, like the Basij," he said. Mandaeans are also deprived of their right to education and work. During the period of the revolution, many Mandaeans employees were expelled from jobs in government institutions in Ahwaz, with the employment of Mandaeans prohibited, even in Iranian state-owned companies. Some private companies also refuse to offer jobs to Mandaeans, fearing retribution by the security authorities in Iran in response. This means that the only area of employment left open to Mandaeans is in their traditional field of gold and jewellery trading, an area in which only a tiny minority can find work, leaving the vast majority facing poverty, persecution and injustice simply due to the Iranian regime's policy towards religious minorities. 

The private sector, which is effectively controlled by the regime like every other aspect of life in Iran, is as prescriptive as the private sector in its attitude; since 1979, Mandaeans have been banned even from working in restaurants and cafés.

This persecution also extends to the field of education, with most Mandaean applicants automatically rejected by Iranian universities due to their religious beliefs.

Like other minorities in Iran, Mandaeans are also denied their own choice of names for their children, being forbidden from giving their children traditional Mandaean names like Zahron, Smith, Anash, Roshma, Ram, Sherbay, Yahana, Shitel, Yazdna, Nikan, or Hibel.

As an example of the blatant callous persecution of Mandaeans in Iran, Abu Daniel cited a case in 2011 when the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in 2011 confiscated a whole area of land around Zand Street in the center of Ahwaz city where Mandaean families lived, demolishing their homes without any prior warning or notification. To maximise the humiliation and trauma for the residents, the regime’s thugs arrived, accompanied by bulldozers, at around 3:00 a.m.  to carry out the demolitions of the Mandaean people’s homes, knowing that the owners would be fast asleep in their beds, and allowing them only a few minutes to grab their children and whatever possessions they could carry and to flee before razing their homes. The demolition was carried out on the orders of a senior local IRGC officer, Major-General Katanabaf. Such demolitions by the regime are not uncommon, with the victims receiving no notification or compensation and with no legal right to restitution.

The IRGC subsequently claimed that it had the right to confiscate this area of land since it was illegitimately occupied property of the Iranian state. Abu Daniel rejected the regime’s efforts to justify this act of wanton destruction, pointing out that the area where the homes stood was given to Mandaeans by Sheikh Khazal more than a century ago, long before the current regime or its predecessor annexed Ahwaz.  



[1] Alwatan Voice, 9th June 2018:

[2] Kayhan London, 10th January 2017:

[3] Ibid

[4] Yasa News, March 2018:

[5] BBC Persian, 29 June 2018:


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