The news about religious minorities in the Middle East and Africa has introduced many of us to communities that we had probably very little previous awareness of. The news has not been good—many horrible stories of persecution and martyrdom. That part of the world is filled with many small religious communities living under threat of extinction in their homelands, if not at the hands of religious persecution, then through the forces of societal pressure, aging populations, and migration for better lives in other parts of the world.
Gerard Russell, formerly a British diplomat and now a policy analyst, introduces the reader of his new book to religious communities that few of us know. He travels through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine/Israel and Egypt to describe seven religious minorities: Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts and Kalasha. Each chapter chronicles his travels into these communities to talk to believers and their leaders, observe rituals when possible or permitted, and to explore their beliefs. This is not a book of comparative religion or theology, but an anthropological study of the religious lives of little-known communities.
In the book, you will encounter religions that are among the oldest on earth, some with practices and ideas that will feel familiar and fascinate you. For example, the Yazidis seem to have been the ones to create the handshake as a gesture of greeting, as a ritual of bonding. The Samaritans are the heirs to the Samaritans of the Bible. They continue to worship on Mount Gerizim as they did in the Gospel of John (chapter 4). The Mandaeans have rites of baptism, and they venerate John the Baptist, seeing him as equal to Jesus. There were also many connections to ancient Greek philosophy and history, a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BC. The Druze trace their religion to the philosophy and geometry of Pythagoras. They struggle with a precept that limits marriage to within the community, and what that means for their sustainability over time. Zoroastrianism is rooted in ancient Persia (modern Iran); for example, Darius III, who was defeated by Alexander the Great, was most likely a Zoroastrian. One of the most interesting pieces in the book indicates that Greeks who presently support the Kalasha communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan do so because of their ancient connections to Alexander the Great.
A surprising feature of many of the communities was the secretive nature of their beliefs; adherents who have spent their whole lives in the religion have been taught almost nothing about what the religion believes because this knowledge is only for its leaders. They also could not share these secret beliefs with Russell. He was often told to look but not touch. In their homelands, this inability to share and explain the faith places a great deal of pressure on the believers, especially because the adherents face a much larger Islamic culture and can be pressured to convert to Islam (such as in Iran or in Pakistan). Islam has strict laws against blasphemy that can be brought to bear against these smaller communities. The challenges are even greater outside their traditional lands, such as in the United States.
The last chapter of the book briefly looks into the experiences of those communities that have migrated to the United States. North America has become a welcoming and safe homeland to many of the communities. Many PRAXIS readers in Michigan are probably aware that the Detroit metropolitan area is filled with a sizeable Arab population. Russell situates his chapter there, meeting with Fr. George Shalhoub at the St. Mary Church in Livonia to discuss the connections among the various Arab communities there, Christian and non-Christian.
Russell also describes other locations, such as the Yazidi community in Lincoln, NE, and he describes the Yazidi leaders who traveled from Lincoln to visit a few of their members near Buffalo, New York. The first Mandaean baptism ceremony in the New World took place on the banks of the Charles River in Boston in June 1999. Russell notes the many challenges for these communities: fewer adherents, secularism and simple economic survival in a new place. Many of the leaders of these religions relate the significance of education, often in contrast to their traditional secretive nature. In a sentiment that will sound familiar to many of us, they relate that the important key for these communities to survive in the United States will be their ability to educate their members in order to hand forward the traditions and beliefs to the next generation, teaching them the precepts of the faith.
Anton C. Vrame, PhD, is Director of the Department of Religious Education.
Gerard Russell, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East (Basic Books, 2014), 320 pages.