FEATURE-Old religion survives on banks of Tigris
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
BAGHDAD, June 17 (Reuters) - Iraqi devotees of an obscure religion perform virginity tests on their brides and take a dip in the murky Tigris river every Sunday to purify the soul.
"It is okay if the bride has lost her virginity. Only the ceremony would be different," Sheikh Asaad Fayyad of the Sabea Mandean Nation, a relic of the ancient Gnostic religions, said at a wedding for five couples at the sect's compound in Baghdad.
John the Baptist, New Testament forerunner to Jesus Christ, is the central figure for the world's 20,000 or so Mandeans, most of whom live in southern Iraq and southwestern Iran.
The Mandeans, forbidden to marry outside the sect, are dwindling in number. Their scholars trace the religion's roots to Adam, whom they say lived 980 million years ago -- pushing mankind's origins far earlier than those proposed by science.
Apart from a now tiny Jewish community, the Mandeans form the smallest group on Iraq's religious spectrum, which ranges from majority Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims to minority Christians and Yazidis, an offshoot of Shi'ism.
Mandeans are secretive, wary of revealing their rites for fear of antagonising their compatriots, especially after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in April.
The former Iraqi ruler did not interfere with them and allowed an Arabic edition of their holy book, Kanz Irba (Great Treasure), to be published two years ago.
Prayer and ceremonies are conducted in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The Mandean ethic is similar to the Judeo- Christian tradition. They regard Jesus with suspicion, saying he added nothing to the message of John the Baptist and prophets before him.
The Mandeans encourage procreation and prefer mass weddings.
With more on their wedding customs. Plus a duck-decapitating ceremony and barbeque. Read it all.