Celebrating Feast, Iraq's Yezidis Fear for Future

Worshippers sacrifice fowl and offer dawn prayers to the angel Malak Taus as hundreds of members Iraq's obscure Yezidi sect gather at their Lalish temple to celebrate the summer feast.

Families walk barefoot through the streets of Sheikh Adi -- a Yezidi religious site about 280 miles north of Baghdad -- paying their respects at numerous shrines and tying knots in holy cloth hung in the temple to ensure male offspring.

Yezidis are one of Iraq's oldest and most unusual religious sects and this festival -- the biggest of their year -- usually attracts around 15,000 people in August, with some families traveling from abroad to make the pilgrimage.

This year things are different. Even before car bombs exploded outside five Christian churches in Iraq this month -- raising fears of attacks on religious minorities -- the Yezidi political leader, or "prince," had ordered official celebrations to be canceled because of security concerns.

This year, the pilgrims numbered in the hundreds, rather than thousands. "I didn't even expect this many people to come," said Sheikh Tassim, the 71-year-old prince, as he received well-wishers in one of the temple's halls.

The Yezidis are a Kurdish religious community who number around 750,000 in Iraq and about 1.5 million worldwide, according to Tassim, with members found in places including Syria, Turkey and Russia.

Tassim, who was forced to flee Iraq after supporting a Kurdish uprising and spent several years in exile in London in the 1970s, said Yezidis were potential targets for militants.

"We have the same problem as everybody else in Iraq -- terrorism," he said. "It's very upsetting that any religious place would be exposed to bomb attacks."


Yezidi beliefs are a confusing mix of Islamic and even Zoroastrian elements, but in Iraq they have gained a reputation as "devil-worshippers" since they revere all of God's angels -- including the "fallen angel" known in some faiths as Satan.

According to Yezidis, "Malak Taus" was God's favorite angel, brought to Earth as a prophet of peace -- but this belief and some unusual customs have provoked mistrust from others.

In fact, many Yezidis believe they are more likely than most to face persecution in Iraq -- because they belong to the Kurdish minority and because of their religion.

"In this country we feel we are always discriminated against twice ... but our traditions will stay," said Sheikh al-Yass Oudi, a distant relative of Sheikh Adi, the faith's historic founder.

Yezidis have no religious marriage ceremony -- the tradition is to kidnap one's intended bride from her family's house and hold her for a year before making a dowry arrangement.

It is also customary for Yezidis not to cut their mustaches, and to avoid eating lettuce or wearing blue.

"We don't like to mix with Arab people -- they consider us unclean because they are uneducated," said Oudi.

Hundreds of Yezidi villages were destroyed during former president Saddam Hussein's campaigns against Iraqi Kurds, and although Yezidis now count one of their number as a minister of state in Baghdad, there is concern among the community that they are being marginalized in postwar Iraq.

"Yezidi families are still living in tents in my district and the government has given us no help," said Qasim Shursha, a Yezidi local government representative in Sinjar, which lies between the northern city of Mosul and the Syrian border.

Shursha said the area contained many Yezidis before Saddam forced them out during the late 1980s -- those who have returned are now facing discrimination by Arabs.

"Nobody is attacking us yet -- but Arabs are trying to remove Yezidi members from the police force."


Most of the families attending this year's toned-down summer festival seemed unworried by the threat of the attacks.

But as they ate picnics in the hills around their temple -- many wearing colorful traditional robes -- some Yezidis admitted to fears for the community's survival.

"We don't worry about those terrorists," said 32-year-old English teacher Sabah Haji. "But our population is getting smaller since we can't marry outside our religion and we don't accept people to enter Yezidism."

Haji said there was a debate among Iraqi Yezidis about whether to relax traditions to stop the community shrinking and ensure it does not become isolated from modern society.

For Haji, upholding the traditions of the "most ancient religion on earth" was paramount, even if they jeopardize the community's existence.

"If God wants us to disappear we will disappear," he said.