Yazidis risk persecution, attacks to follow religion

Washington, USA - 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."