Beliefs Endure as Believers Move On

Midyat, Turkey - On the day the genies show up, seemingly everyone in this historic town in southeastern Turkey heads for the door.

"On Black Wednesdays, you have to go to picnics and stay outdoors," said Summeyye Saltik, 15, on the playground of the local primary school where attendance dipped, as it always does, on the second Wednesday in March. "If you're indoors, genies will visit your house."

Children in Midyat raise hands to indicate if they believe genies visit local houses. The belief is one of the last cultural remnants of the Yazidis, most of whom have left the town.

"Because the houses used to belong to them and they come to claim them," added a classmate, Bushra Gokce.

"They can be anybody," explained a third girl, Serap Ceylan. "They can be Muslims or anybody who lived here before."

That makes the possibilities almost endless in Midyat, which over the centuries has been inhabited or visited by people of a vast assortment of faiths, including the Yazidis, the obscure sect that introduced the town to the springtime escapes of Black Wednesday.

But while the Yazidi wariness of house-haunting genies has spread to many other groups in the area, the number of Yazidis has dwindled considerably. Of about 5,600 Yazidis who lived in the area in the 1980s, only 15 are left.

Midyat, a town that predates Christianity and Islam, once reflected the deep diversity of a region where faiths overlapped and conquering armies advanced and retreated. Scholars say its very name may be a mix of Farsi, Arabic and Assyrian that translates as "mirror."

But what this town of 57,000 reflects these days is a growing sameness. The Armenian Christians who built many of the old city's medieval stone buildings disappeared in the early 20th-century conflict that Armenians and many historians have called genocide. The Assyrian Christians who long accounted for the majority in Midyat have been reduced to just 100 families.

As for the Yazidis: "They were not causing any problems, but it was still better that they left," said Nazete Koksal, an ethnic Kurd seated on a sofa under the arched stone roof of a house her husband, an Arab, bought from a Yazidi family.

"They're dirty," Koksal said. "Their religion is dirty. They pray to the devil. We pray to God."

Still, she expressed some nostalgia for the days before so many groups fled her city. "Before they left, we used to be friends," she said.

In some ways, present-day Midyat reflects the founding principles of modern Turkey. Rising from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic sultanate that tolerated religious minorities as second-class citizens, the Turkish republic was founded on a fierce assertion of national identity. The concept of Turkishness rooted the new nation-state firmly in the hills of the Anatolian peninsula once known as Asia Minor. But it also denied the notion of any other identity existing there.

More than 80 years after the republic was formed, anti-minority feelings can run close to the surface. Last year, an ultranationalist literally tore to pieces a human rights report on minorities before television cameras. In eastern Turkey this month, unemployed youths were hired to portray Armenians in a civic skit depicting a conflict with Turks that was more even-handed than history suggests; municipal workers reportedly had refused to take part.

Here in the southeast, official policy meant people who spoke Kurdish and called themselves Kurds were, officially, "Mountain Turks." Their eventual insistence on maintaining their ethnic Kurdish identity helped spark a separatist war that killed 30,000 people, most of them Kurdish civilians, during the 1990s.

The conflict took a toll on other minorities as well.

Children in Midyat raise hands to indicate if they believe genies visit local houses. The belief is one of the last cultural remnants of the Yazidis, most of whom have left the town.

"We tried to be out of it," said Isa Dogdu, an Assyrian standing in the doorway of a church that dates from the 7th century. As a religious minority, however, the Assyrians felt pressure both from the Kurdish guerrillas and from Turkish Hezbollah, radical Islamic guerrillas whom the government secretly armed as a proxy force. When government officials showed up at the church, said Dogdu, a religious instructor, they asked why young people in its annex were not being taught in Turkish. Assyrians, who in the 1st century formed the world's first Christian community, still learn a version of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

Persecution, Dogdu said, "was not done very openly, but sometimes it was deliberate. For instance, there were some murders of prominent persons. If you murder a prominent person, other people have fear."

Today, about 500 Assyrians live in Midyat. Sunday services rotate among the four churches that remain in the medieval splendor of the old city. In recent months, small groups of Assyrians have begun returning from abroad to build homes, mostly in isolated villages. But Dogdu's weary smile suggested the downward trend would not be easily reversed.

"When you have a majority population and it goes down to less than 1 percent, what do you think?" he said.

The exodus of the Yazidis was more stark. By official count, Turkey had 22,632 members of the sect in 1985. Fifteen years later, their numbers had dropped to 423. In the area around Midyat, the exodus was even more dramatic.

"In the last 20 years, everybody moved," said Mostafa Demir, 22, whose family left Midyat in 1990. "Nobody was really telling them to leave, but the relations were not that warm."

Centuries ago, Muslims slaughtered Yazidis by the thousands as devil worshipers. Yazidis, whose faith draws on several sources, including Zoroastrianism, believe the fallen angel who became Satan later repented, returning to grace after extinguishing the fires of Hell. Yazidis envision him as a peacock, a main symbol of their religion.

In modern Midyat, Demir said, their persecution was more apt to appear as mockery. Demir recalled merchants at the town market drawing a circle in the dirt around Yazidi customers. Yazidis, whose theology does not allow them to break a circle, would stand there indefinitely.

But things grew worse when the Kurdish rebellion erupted. Many Yazidis, who claim to speak the purest Kurdish, identified with the rebels. That made them targets of Turkish troops and Hezbollah, who "pushed the Yazidis out of here to get their lands," said Fars Bakir, an elderly Yazidi who lives in a mud-daubed house in a hamlet called Cilesiz, or "Without Suffering," in a lush valley bordering Syria.

As a condition for joining the European Union, Turkey recently passed new legal protections for minorities. But Bakir, who fled to Germany for several years, said he and his wife came home primarily because of homesickness, not faith in new laws.

Turkey differs with the European Union on the definition of minority, insisting on its definition of nationhood grounded in Turkishness. Baskin Oran, a University of Ankara political scientist active in minority human rights, discounted the new laws as "a revolution from above. It's more or less easy to change laws. But it is much more difficult to change the mentality of the people."