Members of the Mandean community, who are followers of John the Baptist, gather at the Nepean River, Penrith. Photo: Wolter PeetersWearing nothing but white, men and women close their eyes and silently lower their heads into the cold, sparkling water.
They belong to one of the world’s oldest religious groups and practise their ancient rituals every Sunday on the banks of the Nepean River in Penrith.
Fresh flowing water is central to the Mandaean faith. Through full immersion baptism, followers cleanse their sins and connect with god. The white ceremonial robes they wear, called rasta, are symbols of purity.
The 2000-year-old religion has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia and followers claim to be descendants of Adam and worship the prophet John the Baptist.
Mandaeans have always faced persecution in their home lands of Iran and Iraq, but it intensified after the Iraq war started in 2003 with thousands forced to flee their homes.
Sabian Mandaean Association in Australia president Yassmen Yahya says there are about 10,000 Mandaeans now living in Australia, with half of those in south-western Sydney.
As you can only be born into the religion and must marry within it, some have predicted the religion is slowly dying.
Yet for several years community groups have been developing strategies to engage the second generation of Mandaeans, those being born and raised in Australia, with the faith.
Ms Yahya said new programs had been implemented including youth groups, camps and a research project encouraging young people to investigate Mandaeans beliefs.
“There is a challenge, I won’t say there isn’t. Especially when people come to a new country and find that there are a lot of options,” Ms Yahya said.
“But there is still a strong connection between Mandaean families and I don’t think any other communities have that and it’s what keeps the religion going.”
The Mandaean association has recently started construction of a special baptism pool on a large of block land it owns in Wallacia.
The water will flow into the pool from the Nepean River but will give the community space and privacy, Ms Yahya said.
“At the moment where we do our baptism is in a public park and sometimes it can be hard,” she said. “I think it will be good for young people to have their own space so they can do their baptism.”
There is another sign of change with the election of Ms Yahya. She said she is the first female president of a Mandaean association anywhere in the world.
“We have survived over the years. With all the discrimination and persecution we have faced, we still exist. We believe that will always be the case.”
As the biblical scene unfolds, with a crying baby lowered into the water, the jet skis that zoom by are what seem from another time and place.
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