Iraq’s religious mix is at risk

Exotic minority sects that have survived millennia are being crushed by jihadist intolerance

The World Today
5 minute READ

Gerard Russell

Former British and United Nations diplomat, Author of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Among the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East (Simon & Schuster)

Iraq is being denuded of its ancient communities, and both it and the world are the poorer for it. As the jihadists of Islamic State try to entrench their rule, it is an open question whether Iraq’s religious minorities will survive, and if so, how they can be protected. There is another, deeper question, however. How did Iraq come to have so much religious diversity in the first place, and what does this this say about the type of Islam that prevailed there until the 21st century?

It is a question that struck me back in 2006 when I was head of the British Embassy’s political team in Baghdad. I encountered the high priest of the Mandaeans, a reclusive group of quasi-Manichean monotheists who revere the stars and planets and see themselves as the oldest religion in the world. They and others – Yazidis, Kaka’is and many varieties of Christians – have miraculously survived into the modern era.

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