Iraq's 'devil-worshippers' seek constitutional rights

Shaikhan, Iraq - At a mountainside temple in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, pilgrims from the minority Yezidi community come to worship the peacock angel, also known as Lucifer.

As Iraq moves toward a new post-Saddam Hussein political order, the Yezidis, long regarded by Muslims as "devil-worshippers", are seizing on this key moment in history to enshrine their community's rights in a new constitution.

"Discrimination against the Yezidis must end, and our political and religious rights must be recognized in the constitution," said the faith's hereditary leader Mil (Prince) Hazem Tahsin Said.

Wearing a yellow shirt and shiny brown tie, this supposed prince of darkness greets visitors to his expensive villa in the countryside north of Mosul with a wide smile. Two Kurdish militiamen stand guard at the door.

"As Kurds and as Yezidis, we were doubly victimised by Saddam Hussein," says the 40-year-old chief, who doubles as tribal and religious leader to his people.

Yezidis follow a pre-Islamic religion, which some believe was founded in the 12th century by Sheikh Uday bin Masafel al-Amawi, although many scholars trace its origins to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia.

Sheikh Uday was born in Damascus but died in the town of Lalish, just 12 kilometres (eight miles) from Shaikhan, where his tomb has become the Yezidis' holiest shrine.

The community is still largely based in the foothills north of Iraq's main northern city of Mosul and in the Sinjar mountains on the border with Syria.

But followers of the 100,000-strong faith can be found throughout the Kurdish disapora, in neighbouring Syria and Turkey as well as the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus.

The Yezidis do not believe in heaven or hell, and do not regard Satan as evil. In fact, they worship him.

"Please excuse me, but I cannot say this word (devil) out loud because it is sacred. It's the chief of angels," said Mil Hazem.

"We believe in Allah (God) and in (the chief of angels)," he explained.

Unlike Muslims, Yezidis can eat pork. On the other hand, they are prohibited from eating lettuce or from wearing the color blue.

Fierce guardians of their traditions, Yezidis do not permit outsiders to convert to their religion.

The faith has six distinct levels of initiation -- princes, sheikhs, senators, seers, ascetics and the community of the faithful, which comprises about 70 percent of the Yezidi population.

Marriage across classes is forbidden.

Now, Yezidis count three members of the Iraqi parliament, all of them elected as part of the Kurdish alliance which came second in landmark elections in January, as well as two members of the Kurdish regional parliament in Arbil.

The community's lot had already improved since the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, when Kurdish rebels established an autonomous administration in three northern provinces, including the Yezidi centres of Lalish and Shaikhan.

But according to the head of security at the Lalish temple, Yezidis don't want to risk being oppressed again.

"Our religion is taught in schools and since 1991, we have retaken villages we were forced out of during Saddam Hussein's Arabisation campaign," said Derman Racho, 52.

"Now we want the constitution to guarantee that we can be Iraqis and Yezidis."

Racho guards the Lalish temple, where two sculpted peacocks representing the "chief of angels" stand watch over the entrance.

Worshippers remove their shoes and proceed inside, where seven pieces of vividly colored fabric are affixed to pillars, representing seven angels.

In the heart of the main chamber, men, women and children offer prayers while knotting and unknotting strips of material that cover the tomb of their founding father, Sheikh Uday.

In the courtyard, two men and two women dressed in white, who have taken an oath of celibacy, light 366 oil lamps.

"So that we don't forget the souls of our saints and prophets," explained their superior, Pil Charo, 32.

Most Yezidis speak Kurmanji, the most widely spoken dialect of Kurdish, but not all Sunni Muslim Kurds accept the Yezidis as part of their own ethnic group.

Asked about the Yezidis, several Sunni Kurds said they would not share a meal with a Yezidi because they considered the community "unclean".

"Our parents told us that we could go to eat at the house of a Christian or a Jew, but not with them," said one Kurd.