Iraqi 'devil worshipers' seek US support

Lalesh, Iraq - The leader of Iraq's embattled Yazidi religion called for continued support from the US-led coalition Tuesday, saying his half-million-strong community is threatened by Islamic extremists.

"We as a minority need the great powers' help and support," the Yazidis' Baba Sheikh, Khurto Hajji Ismail, said during the religion's most important festival.

"If no coalition forces were here, we would suffer from persecution and oppression," he added.

Branded ‘devil worshippers’ by Christians and Muslims, the group earned much distrust by its suspicious neighbours.

The Yazidis are in the midst of their Eid al-Jamaa or Feast of Assembly, an annual festival at their holy temple in Lalesh, just 60 kilometres (less than 40 miles) northwest of Iraq's main northern city of Mosul, a bastion of Sunni insurgents.

Yazidis say their community is singled out because it is neither Christian nor Muslim.

"The Islamic groups are a major threat to us, especially extremists like Al-Qaeda and the other terrorists," said Ismail, even as Yazidis from Georgia, Germany, Turkey and elsewhere flocked to Iraq for the annual festival.

In addition to God, the Yazidis worship Malak Taus, the chief of the angels who takes the form of a blue peacock.

In other religions this figure has been equated with Lucifer and earned the Yazidis a reputation -- wrong in their view -- as devil worshippers.

"We are caught between the borders of the Kurdish and Arab areas and sometimes the Sunni tribes threaten our villages and ask us to leave," the sheikh said.

Hundreds of Yazidi families have fled Mosul in the past two years leaving little more than a half dozen now.

Most have found safety in the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the country's north where security is much better than the rest of the Iraq.

Yazidis speak Kurdish and are granted full religious freedom under the regional government in which they also hold two ministerial posts.

Ismail, however, maintains that minor officials resent them and prevent their villages from receiving adequate services.

"The government does protect us and provides some services, but there are some officials from the Kurdish parties that treat us badly," he said.

The sheikh and his council even announced that the ceremonies for Eid al-Jamaa would not be held this year because of the security risk.

But at the village of Lalesh itself, which is filled with tombs of Yazidi holy men and contains two sacred springs, throngs of devotees in their best clothes continued to make pilgrimage during the seven days of the festival.

Most seemed sure that the clerics would still hold the sacred ceremonies marking the climax of the festival, regardless of their public statements, but all were aware of the threats outside.

"We are afraid of Islam," said Shirwan al-Fakir, whose family is charged with taking care of the main temple. He paused. "Not all, just the terrorists, because someone told them that the Yazidis are a problem."