Water pollution in Iraq threatens Mandaean religious rites

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A dead carp floats near the Mandaean Temple as followers of the obscure and ancient Mandaean faith perform rituals along a strip of embankment on the Tigris River reserved for them, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP/Hadi Mizban)
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Followers of the obscure and ancient Mandaean faith wash food with river water along a strip of embankment on the Tigris River reserved for them, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP/Hadi Mizban)
Updated 17 October 2018

Water pollution in Iraq threatens Mandaean religious rites

  • Until 2003, nearly all the world’s Mandaeans lived in Iraq, but the cycles of conflict since the US invasion have driven minorities out of the country
  • The wars that drove many Mandaeans out of the country also aggravated a water crisis set in motion by deposed dictator Saddam Hussein’s ecological policies

BAGHDAD: Every Sunday in Iraq, along a strip of embankment on the Tigris River reserved for followers of the obscure and ancient Mandaean faith, worshippers bathe themselves in the waters to purify their souls.
But unlike in ancient times, the storied river that runs through Baghdad is fouled by untreated sewage and dead carp, which float by in the fast-moving current.
“It’s very saddening. Our religious books warn us not to defile the water. There are angels watching over it,” said Sheikh Satar Jabar, head of Iraq’s Mandaean community.
Iraq’s soaring water pollution is threatening the religious rites of its tight-knit Mandaean community, already devastated by 15 years of war that has also affected the country’s other minority sects.
Mandaeism follows the teachings of John the Baptist, a saint in both the Christian and Islamic traditions, and its rites revolve around water.
On the eastern bank of the Tigris recently, Jabar watched as a younger cleric blessed congregants in the river, then anointed them with holy oil and gave them a sacrament of bread and water on dry land.
The women, shrouded in white and their hair tucked under headdresses, went into the river first, receiving their blessings in a Mandaean dialect of Jesus’s native tongue, Aramaic. Then the ceremony was repeated for the men. Finally, a one-year-old child, Yuhana, received his first baptism, squirming and sputtering as his father dipped him in.
“When a Mandaean believer commits a sin or wants to ease the worries of life, he comes to the cleric to practice his religious rituals, where he must immerse himself three times in running water,” said Jabar.
The faith holds that only flowing water can baptize the faithful, and that it should be clear, pure and fit for human consumption.
Until 2003, nearly all the world’s Mandaeans lived in Iraq, but the cycles of conflict since the US invasion have driven minorities out of the country for security reasons and economic opportunity.
Most recently, under the Daesh’s three-year reign in northern Iraq, the militants dynamited shrines to saints, forced Christians to pay a special head tax, and enslaved, raped and killed followers of the Yazidi faith.
Sheikh Jabar estimates there are just 10,000 Mandaeans left in Iraq today, a fraction of what it was before. Their numbers are particularly susceptible to the toll of migration because Mandaeism does not accept converts: Worshippers must be born into the faith.
The wars that drove many Mandaeans out of the country also aggravated a water crisis set in motion by deposed dictator Saddam Hussein’s ecological policies. Baghdad’s river today is a stew of industrial chemicals, untreated sewage and poisonous agricultural runoff, the Save the Tigris civil society campaign said in a 2018 report.
And water levels are falling, owing to the changing climate and damming in neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran. About 70 percent of Iraq’s water flows from upstream countries.
In the southern city of Basra, where the Tigris merges with Iraq’s other fabled river, the Euphrates, riots broke out this summer over the chronic pollution and water scarcity. More than a dozen people were killed in the security crackdown.
Still, the two Mesopotamian rivers mentioned in Mandaean scripture hold special significance to the faithful.
Ibtisam Kareem, 45, accepted a sacrament from the cleric and drank a handful of water from the Tigris.
“If you have faith in God,” she said, “this water is like honey.”


Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

Updated 27 February 2021

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

  • Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished
SANAA/NEW YORK: Ahmadiya Juaidi’s eyes are wide as she drinks a nutrition shake from a large orange mug, her thin fingers grasping the handle. Her hair is pulled back and around her neck hangs a silver necklace with a heart and the letter A.
Three weeks ago the 13-year-old weighed just nine kilograms (20 pounds) when she was admitted to Al-Sabeen hospital in Yemen’s capital Sanaa with malnutrition that sickened her for at least the past four years. Now she weighs 15 kilograms.
“I am afraid when we go back to the countryside her condition will deteriorate again due to lack of nutritional food. We have no income,” her older brother, Muhammad Abdo Taher Shami, told Reuters.
They are among some 16 million Yemenis — more than half the population of the Arabian Peninsula country — that the United Nations says are going hungry. Of those, five million are on the brink of famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warns.
On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise some $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what Lowcock says would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.
Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished, according to UN data. For much of its food, the country relies on imports that have been badly disrupted over the years by all warring parties.
“Before the war Yemen was a poor country with a malnutrition problem, but it was one which had a functioning economy, a government that provided services to quite a lot of its people, a national infrastructure and an export base,” Lowcock told reporters. “The war has largely destroyed all of that.”
“In the modern world famines are basically about people having no income and then other people blocking efforts to help them. That’s basically what we’ve got in Yemen,” he added.

Pro-government rallies cause outrage in Turkey

Updated 27 February 2021

Pro-government rallies cause outrage in Turkey

  • Ruling party accused of double standard amid ban on student protests

ANKARA: Large rallies for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and other “superspreader” events have sparked public outcry, with the government accused of double standards in the country’s fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In recent weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended these crowded events — some resembling pop concerts — along with other provincial congress meetings across the country.

The indoor events, with thousands in attendance, have been criticized over a lack of social distancing. Meanwhile, peaceful protests of university students and ordinary meetings of some dissident NGOs are still forbidden because they do not respect pandemic measures.

Restaurants, coffee houses and art excursions remain shut under pandemic restrictions, which has left thousands of laid-off workers on the verge of chronic poverty and merchants grappling with bankruptcy.

“Shopkeepers have closed shutters and they are utterly devastated. The AKP’s rallies are wide open and everybody is smiling,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, said during his parliamentary speech on Tuesday.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party was fined for violating social distancing rules after one of its events, but no punishments have been imposed for the pro-government rallies.

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, who advises against large rallies, publicly apologized after Erdogan and a group of AKP officials gathered at a mosque in Istanbul on Feb. 21 for the funeral of a clergyman.

“I should have foreseen such a situation,” Koca said Wednesday. “It is my mistake. As 83 million people, we should equally self-sacrifice ourselves by staying away from closed spaces and crowded areas during the pandemic.”

Thousands of people forbidden from attending funerals, along with millions of children still unable to attend school, have taken to social media to express their anger and criticize the fairness of pandemic restrictions.

A video featuring AKP youth members from the southern Hatay branch dancing, singing and carrying each other on their shoulders all without masks has gone viral and was dubbed the “political corona party.”

A recent survey by the government revealed that only 40 percent of the Turkish people trust the administration's management of the COVID-19. Turkey is ranked 74th out of 98 countries in the Lowy Institute's COVID Performance Index, which assesses each nation’s performance in managing the virus.

“I have not seen or heard anything like this,” Ozlem Kayim Yildiz, a neurologist from Sivas University, tweeted. “In the midst of the pandemic, while restrictions continue, ‘some’ are exempt from these restrictions. Has the caste system arrived? They do not even bother to obey their own rules. They don't even care about looking consistent or thoughtful.”

So far, the coronavirus has killed 370 health professionals in Turkey.

Urartu Seker, a medical specialist from Bilkent University, echoed the widespread criticisms from those in the scientific community: “I'm very sorry, for those who follow the rules, those who lost their jobs, and for children who are out of school,” he said.

Turkey’s population continues to struggle financially as it deals with pandemic restrictions. About 100,000 shopkeepers closed their businesses last year, while about 40,735 companies ceased operations.

Millions are expected to lose their jobs after the Turkish government lifts the ban on layoffs in May, which will be a huge blow for a country that is already dealing with more than 11 million people unemployed.
 


Five protesters die, dozens injured in clashes in Iraqi city

Updated 26 February 2021

Five protesters die, dozens injured in clashes in Iraqi city

  • The clashes continued on Friday evening after a week of violence that erupted on Sunday
  • Protesters are demanding the removal of the governor and justice for protesters who killed since 2019

NASSIRIYA: At least five protesters were killed and more than 175 people injured on Friday in clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya, a Reuters witness and other sources said.
Among the fatalities, most of the protesters died from bullet wounds, a hospital source said, adding that about 120 protesters were wounded. At least 57 members of the security forces were injured, according to a another hospital source and a security source.
The clashes continued on Friday evening after a week of violence that erupted on Sunday when security forces fired to disperse protesters, who were trying to storm the provincial government building using rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Protesters are demanding the removal of the governor and justice for protesters who killed since 2019.
Iraq’s biggest anti-government protests in decades broke out in October 2019 and continued for several months, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demanding jobs, services and the removal of the ruling elite, whom they accused of corruption.
Nearly 500 people were killed, and the protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who took office in May 2020, has pledged justice for activists killed or abused by armed groups. But no prosecutions have occurred so far.
The clashes come just a week before Pope Francis visits Iraq from March 5 to 8. He is due to tour the ancient Mesopotamian site of Ur, only a few kilometers (mile) away from the clashes.


UN Security Council sanctions top Houthi security official for rape and torture

Updated 26 February 2021

UN Security Council sanctions top Houthi security official for rape and torture

  • Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin's acts “threaten peace of Yemen”
  • “Zabin himself directly inflicted torture in some cases,” the council said

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on a top Houthi security official in the Yemeni city of Sanaa, citing his prominent role in intimidations, systematic arrests, detentions, torture, sexual violence “and rape against politically active women.”
A resolution adopted by a vote of 14-0, with Russia abstaining, said Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin, director of the Criminal Investigation Department in Sanaa, was directly or by virtue of his authority responsible for using multiple places of detention including police stations, prisons and detention centers for human rights abuses.
“In these sites, women, including at least one minor, were forcibly disappeared, repeatedly interrogated, raped, tortured, denied timely medical treatment and subjected to forced labor,” the council said in imposing a travel ban and arms embargo. “Zabin himself directly inflicted torture in some cases.”
It added that Zabin “engaged in acts that threaten the peace, security and stability of Yemen, including violations of applicable international humanitarian law and human rights abuses in Yemen.”
Resolution 2564 strongly condemned “violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, as well as human rights abuses, including those involving conflict-related sexual violence in Houthi-controlled areas and recruitment and use of children in armed conflict across Yemen, as recorded in the Panel of Experts’ final report.”
The council welcomed the formation of the new cabinet of Yemen’s government under the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement, calling “for the full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement (and) calling for the swift resumption of talks between the parties, in full engagement with UN mediation efforts.”
Council members also condemned “in the strongest terms” last year’s attack on Aden that killed 27 civilians, including a Yemeni deputy minister and three humanitarian and health personnel.
The council strongly condemned the ongoing escalation of violence in Yemen’s oil-rich central province of Marib between the Houthis and government forces, and the continuation of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The resolution stressed the need “for de-escalation across Yemen and a nationwide cease-fire.”
Regarding the imminent disaster posed by the Houthis’ refusal to allow a UN inspection of the Safer oil tanker, which has been moored off the war-torn country’s coast and is loaded with more than a million barrels of crude oil at risk of leaking, council members emphasized the environmental and humanitarian risk and “the need, without delay, for access of UN officials to inspect and maintain (the) tanker, which is located in the Houthi-controlled north of Yemen.”
They stressed the militia’s responsibility for the situation and for not responding to this “major environmental and humanitarian risk,” underscoring the need for the Houthis “to urgently facilitate unconditional and safe access for UN experts to conduct an assessment and repair mission without further delay.”
Meanwhile US President Joe Biden, during a phone call with King Salman, commended Saudi Arabia’s support for UN efforts to reach a truce and cease-fire in Yemen.
King Salman said Saudi Arabia was keen to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen and to achieve security and development for its people.
The two sides discussed Iran’s behavior in the region, its destabilizing activities and its support for terrorist groups.
The Arab coalition thwarted a second Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia just hours after it had destroyed a drone launched by the militia toward Khamis Mushait.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the militia’s attempt to target civilians in Saudi Arabia.
Heavy fighting between rebels and government forces in Marib has killed at least 27 people, tribal leaders and security officials said on Friday.
(With AP)

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US airstrike in Syria sent ‘unambiguous message’: White House

Updated 26 February 2021

US airstrike in Syria sent ‘unambiguous message’: White House

  • The Pentagon said Thursday's strike was in response for a series of rocket attacks targeting US soldiers in Iraq
  • Psaki said Biden's aim was for "deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq"

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: The United States sent an "unambiguous message" with an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in eastern Syria, the White House said Friday.
President Joe Biden is "sending an unambiguous message that he's going to act to protect Americans and when threats are posed he has the right to take an action at the time and the manner of his choosing," Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
The Pentagon said Thursday's strike, which according to a Syrian war monitoring group killed 22 militia members, was in response for a series of rocket attacks targeting US soldiers in Iraq.
One of those strikes, on a military complex in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil on February 15, killed a civilian and a foreign contractor working with coalition forces, and wounded several US contractors and a soldier.
Psaki said the decision behind the strike was "deliberative" and that Biden's aim was for "deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq."
Addressing criticism from some in Congress that Biden should have sought legislators' authority before ordering the strike, Psaki said "there was a thorough legal process and review in advance."