Yazidis risk per­se­cu­tion, at­tacks to fol­low their re­li­gion

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - By Ju­lia Duin

Travel any­where in north­ern Iraq, and you will see them: small, white, con­i­cal shrines that sit alone in the fields, along with the sheep.

Inside, the floors are greasy, cov­ered with drip­pings from oil lamps. There are low-ly­ing al­tars for the oc­ca­sional an­i­mal sac­ri­fice. The door­ways are low, mak­ing one bow to­ward the al­tar upon en­ter­ing.

Th­ese are the khal­was — tem­ples for the Yazidi, an eth­nic-Kur­dish group that prac­tices a re­li­gion that is a mix­ture of Is­lam, Zoroas­tri­an­ism, gnos­ti­cism, Ju­daism, Su­fism and shaman­ism.

Their highly syn­cretis­tic be­liefs — in­clud­ing a ven­er­a­tion of Lu­cifer as a re­deemed ar­changel — have earned them the rep­u­ta­tion as devil wor­ship­pers, a con­cept loathed by the Mus­lim pop­u­lace.

The Mus­lim sui­cide bombers who killed at least 400 Yazidis Aug. 14 were act­ing on a cen­turies-old mu­tual loathing.

The Yazidi faith pre­dates Is­lam, but it de­rives its name from Yezid or Yazid, a sev­enth-cen­tury Umayyad caliph, or spir­i­tual leader. The faith is based at Lal­ish, a town 15 miles north of Mo­sul, the site of a tomb of a 12th-cen­tury Yazidi mys­tic, Sheik Adi. All Yazidis are en­cour­aged to make pil­grim­ages there ev­ery fall.

The re­li­gion re­tains some of the fire rit­u­als and prayers to­ward the sun de­rived from the fire-wor­ship­ping Zoroas­tri­ans. Yazidis be­lieve that Lu­cifer, af­ter he fell, re­pented and was re­stored by God to his pre­vi­ous po­si­tion as chief of all the an­gels. They now liken him to a pea­cock and call him Melek Taus, the pea­cock an­gel. Yazidis also ven­er­ate de­pic­tions of ser­pents.

Melek Taus, in Yazidi cos­mol­ogy, is some­what like the Chris­tians’ Ar­changel Michael, rul­ing over other an­gels. Yazidis be­lieve Melek Taus and six other an­gelic be­ings rule the uni­verse for God, who they say has no di­rect hand in the run­ning of the af­fairs of the plan­ets and the stars. They do not be­lieve in sin or hell, nor in the devil, mak­ing Mus­lims’ de­pic­tion of them as devil wor­ship­pers dou­bly ironic.

The sect avoids any con­tact with the color blue, which is ap­par­ently spe­cific to the pea­cock an­gel. There are food ta­boos: Let­tuce is es­pe­cially for­bid­den, as Yazidis be­lieve evil can be found in it. Some also for­bid fish, squash, okra, beans and cab­bage.

Their the­ol­ogy says all Yazidis are de­scen­dants of Adam, but not Eve. Both Adam and Eve, they say, were given seed with which to have chil­dren, but only Adam’s pro­duced a child. That boy mar­ried a houri — one of the beau­ti­ful vir­gins of the Ko­ranic par­adise — and so be­gan the Yazidi race. They also be­lieve in rein­car­na­tion, and they have a caste sys­tem within their own ranks. Their chil­dren are bap­tized at birth, and the boys are cir­cum­cised.

Most Yazidis are shep­herds and very poor, liv­ing in iso­lated vil­lages on the Nin­eveh plain. Two such vil­lages, Bozan and Ken­dala, vis­ited by this re­porter in 2004, were lo­cated on arid, rocky ter­rain. They only had ru­ined shells for schools, and vil­lage lead­ers begged for Amer­i­can help in re­build­ing them.

They oc­cupy a po­si­tion sim­i­lar to the Druze in Le­banon and Is­rael, as both have se­cre­tive reli­gions, both are re­li­gious mi­nori­ties and nei­ther group in­ter­mar­ries with other reli­gions. One can­not con­vert into the Yazidi re­li­gion; one must be born into it.

Yazidis and their fel­low Mus­lim Kurds share the same moun­tain­ous re­gions in Iraq, Turkey, Ar­me­nia and Syria. There are roughly 1 mil­lion Yazidis in the world, ac­cord­ing to a brief­ing pa­per dis­trib­uted by the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom (USCIRF). Most other es­ti­mates num­ber them be­tween 200,000 and 300,000. An es­ti­mated 70,000 Yazidis live in Europe — mostly in Ger­many — and about 450 to 500 are scat­tered across the United States.

More Yazidis are em­i­grat­ing be­cause of the bleak sit­u­a­tion faced by re­li­gious mi­nori­ties all over the Nin­eveh prov­ince, which sur­rounds Mo­sul. Be­fore be­ing fa­tally shot June 7, Sa­har al-Haideri, who was a Mo­sul-based re­porter for the In­sti­tute for War and Peace Re­port­ing, said a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ties face con­stant threats there. Other groups are Assyr­ian Chris­tians and Shabaks — a group of 400,000 Iraqis who prac­tice a deriva­tive of Is­lam and whose lan­guage is a mix of Kur­dish, Farsi, Turk­ish and Ara­bic.

Yazidis have es­pe­cially been tar­geted at Mo­sul Univer­sity, which has taken on an ex­trem­ist Is­lamic tone, Mrs. al-Haideri wrote. One Yazidi lec­turer, who has since quit, told re­porters he feared for his life, as the univer­sity has taken no steps to pro­tect mi­nori­ties on cam­pus.

“I’m go­ing to get out of Iraq and go to any coun­try where Yazidis are not killed,” said Atto Sa’ed, 45. “Here in Mo­sul, Yazidi blood is cheap, and no one de­fends their rights.”

Un­like the Sunni Kurds, re­li­gious mi­nor­ity groups in north­ern Iraq have no mili­tias to pro­tect them, leav­ing them wide open for at­tack. Their homes and land can be taken with im­punity.

One of Mrs. al-Haideri’s last sto­ries was on how the ge­n­e­sis of the cur­rent Yazidi-Sunni con­flict be­gan in April. A 17-year-old Yazidi girl from the vil­lage of Bashiqa, 21 miles east of Mo­sul, had an­nounced her plans to marry a Sunni man.

Not only does the Yazidi re­li­gion not al­low mar­riage out­side the faith, leav­ing the re­li­gion in­curs harsh penal­ties.

Fi­nally, the girl, Duaa Khalil Aswad, con­verted to Is­lam, with the grudg­ing con­sent of her par­ents. When her tribe learned of the mat­ter, the girl fled to the home of a Yazidi cleric, in fear for her life. When some of her un­cles came to the cleric’s home on April 7 to say the tribe had for­given her and wanted her to re­turn home, she be­lieved them.

No sooner had she got­ten a few yards out­side the house when a crowd of Yazidis, in­clud­ing 13 of her cousins, sur­rounded her, forced her to the ground, then dropped large con­crete blocks on her. For the next two hours, they beat and stoned her to death while other mem­bers of the mob cheered and filmed the killing on their cell phones. Lo­cal po­lice as well as mem­bers of the Kur­dish mili­tia stood by, do­ing noth­ing.

When footage of the mur­der be­gan sur­fac­ing on the In­ter­net, the lo­cal Mus­lim com­mu­nity arose in out­rage, call­ing the girl “our mar­tyred sis­ter.” This was not the first time a girl had been killed for leav­ing the Yazidi faith; a few months be­fore, an­other girl who had con­verted to Is­lam was shot in the head by her fam­ily, Mrs. al-Haideri wrote.

Re­tal­i­a­tion came swiftly: On April 22, a bus­load of 23 Yazidi tex­tile work­ers were ex­e­cuted by Sunni gun­men in east­ern Mo­sul; on April 26, a Yazidi baker and three of his helpers were killed; then, on Aug. 14, sui­cide bombers tar­geted two Yazidi vil­lages 70 miles west of Mo­sul, killing about 400 peo­ple.

Yazidis say they are hemmed in on one side by in­sur­gents and on the other by their fel­low Mus­lim Kurds, who are also quick to dis­en­fran­chise them. Yazidis, along with the Assyr­ian Chris­tians, com­plained bit­terly dur­ing the Jan­uary 2005 elec­tions that the Kur­dis­tan Demo­cratic Party con­fis­cated their bal­lot boxes. The same thing hap­pened dur­ing sub­se­quent elec­tions in Oc­to­ber and De­cem­ber 2005.

“The dis­en­fran­chised mi­nori­ties had learned, how­ever, from their ex­pe­ri­ence in Jan­uary 2005 that fil­ing com­plaints and mak­ing di­rect ap­peals for as­sis­tance with the U.S. gov­ern­ment pro­duces no re­sponse,” said Michael Youash, di­rec­tor of the Iraq Sus­tain­able Democ­racy Project, dur­ing a USCIRF hear­ing July 25 on Capi­tol Hill. “In­stead, one is left alone, with those who per­pe­trated the crimes and have the means and the will to in­flict grave harm.

“Mi­nori­ties learned that stand­ing up for their rights to vote with U.S. or Iraqi au­thor­i­ties only ex­poses them to greater per­se­cu­tion. Bet­ter to stay quiet. Yet the De­part­ment of State in­ter­prets this [si­lence] as an im­prove­ment. How wrong.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Yazidi men wor­ship by ty­ing knots into pieces of fab­ric in a shrine on Mount Sin­jar. The Yazidis have faced at­tacks for their re­li­gious be­liefs, the most re­cent from Mus­lim sui­cide bombers on Aug. 14, which killed at least 400 Yazidis.

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