Iraqi authorities laid the foundation stone for a cultural centre for the country’s dwindling Sabean population, at a ceremony in Baghdad on Thursday.
The $1.08 million project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, before Baghdad takes over as the 2013 Arab Capital of Culture.
The centre’s two-storey building in west Baghdad’s Qadissiyah district will include a museum, a multi-purpose hall and other unspecified facilities.
“This is a step towards restoring the liberty of this sect because they have been exposed to many injustices, like other minorities,” the deputy culture minister, Taher Nasser al-Hmoud, told AFP.
“We know that a lot of them left Iraq because of difficulties and terrorist activity against them, like other minorities. We are keen to maintain this minority, and we have to make them feel secure — emotionally, monetarily and physically.”
Also known as Mandaeans, 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.
The community had been cut to no more than 35,000 members when the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam. Today, their numbers are estimated at around 5,000.