Obscure sect hopes for greater freedom in new Iraq

Their holiest shrine is hidden in a mountain valley paradise, tucked among olive and rosewood trees by a babbling stream, the clean white spires of their temples nestled among the greenery and steep valley walls.

The bearded monks wear all white and go barefoot, lighting wicks dipped in olive oil and leaving small offerings of eggshells daubed with brightly-colored mud on round white rocks in a sunlit courtyard.

The Yezidis are an ancient sect with beliefs so old they claim they have no sacred book because their roots stretch back to the time before writing was invented.

But to the villagers living just outside the Yezidi enclave at the base of northern Iraq's towering mountains, they are known as devil-worshippers, followers of God's fallen angel, Lucifer. People whisper fearful things about them.

"They say we have tails," said Dildar Ahmed, 30, an economics student at a nearby university who was born into the sect. "You wouldn't believe the rumors about our religion."

While the group does have a few seemingly strange practices, such as never wearing blue and never eating lettuce, their most holy shrine is far from a sinister place.

Other than a black snake carved in relief by the temple's main door, the retreat is a stunning oasis of peace and tranquility in war-torn Iraq.

Swallows dart about the courtyard, which has a small fountain fed by the babbling stream where acolytes wash their hands and faces. A trellis supporting spindly grape vines covers the whitewashed tomb of a holy man set in the courtyard.

The heavy wooden doors to the main shrine open silently, and the swallows immediately flit inside, chirping in the cool darkness as if it were a special home for them, too.

The bodies of several ancient holy men lay entombed within, their marble coffins draped in colorful banners. The tall white conical spire that is the centerpiece sweeps dramatically overhead, the walls carved in intricate patterns.

"We began worshipping the sun in the days before there were Christians or Muslims," claims Babashir Kharto Ishmail, a gray-bearded elder priest dressed in immaculate white who welcomes visitors with tea. "We still pray to the sun at dawn and dusk each day, but we know the sun is not our God. He is alone and the source of all, the same God of the Christians, Muslims and Jews."

Ishmail said the sect believes not in Lucifer the devil, but that God's fallen angel returned to power as the Almighty's chief angel. The Yezidis call him "Malak," and he is represented by a peacock, a pair of which are carved into the rock lintel over the shrine's doors.

The exact story is lost in the mists of history, although some scholars trace the Yezidis to a Zoroastrian sect that emerged from Iran. There are Yezidis scattered around the world, with a large population in India, although this area of Iraq seems to be their spiritual homeland.

The believers here are mostly ethnic Kurds, and while there was no discrimination against their religion under Saddam Hussein's secular regime dominated by Sunni Muslims, many Yezidis were forcibly displaced from their homes along with other Kurds.

Now the sect's leaders hope that a new, free Iraq will give them the opportunity to modernize, building a more prosperous life, but one in which they can hold onto their ancient beliefs.

"We don't want a religious government," Ishmail said. "All are free to worship as they believe, but the government should be separate from those beliefs."