Ancient Faith Is a Reminder of Iraq’s Diversity

In the mountainous north, the Yazidi religion retains its hold. Removed from conflict, adherents believe they never had it so good.

BASHIQA, Iraq — Perhaps this is one case where the devil isn’t in the details.

For centuries, believers in the Yazidi religion in northern Iraq were oppressed by their Ottoman overlords and Muslim Kurdish neighbors and labeled a sect of devil worshipers. When not the victims of massacres, they were snickered at for what was seen as their strangely eclectic list of taboos — among them, eating lettuce, wearing the color blue and uttering words that begin with the sound sh.

A look of pain crosses the face of Sheik Ali Qawal Cholo, leader of the Yazidis in this village, when he is reminded of it all. No, he says wearily, the Yazidis don’t worship the devil. In fact, they do not even believe that there is a devil, as perceived by Christians and Muslims. And those other things, they are folk customs, not tenets of the religion, he adds.

At a time when the world thinks of Iraq mostly in terms of whether the country is hiding weapons of mass destruction, a visit to the Yazidis is an instructive reminder that this is a complex nation of 23 million people and a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. It is filled with ordinary people leading lives that, for the most part, are removed from the contentious issues monopolizing the attention of the great and mighty worldwide.

Surrounded in his home by four grown sons, five daughters and Shamma, his black-turbaned wife, the 55-year-old Cholo is more stolid than satanic. The former army officer wears a kaffiyeh and a brown robe and is grave and faintly proud to be playing host to a visitor curious about a religion that he claims is older that Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Yazidis have been in Iraq, Syria and Turkey for centuries and consider themselves descended from the biblical prophet Abraham. Cholo believes that they existed in ancient times and had a temple in old Babylon. But that account of their history would seem at variance with the fact that their main sheik, Adi, who wrote their sacred text, did not live until the 11th or 12th century.

What is clear is that the Yazidis borrowed elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the Zoroastrian fire-worship religion of Iran, and wove them into a faith both mysterious and somehow familiar to those who wander into their temples and graveyards, which dot the hillsides of northern Iraq.

Yazidis believe that there is one God and that he created seven angels as his instruments in helping to run the universe. The first of the angels, beautiful because he was created from God’s brightness, is called the Peacock Angel and also is known as the Fallen Angel. But rather than becoming Satan when he fell from grace, as some Christians would have it, the Peacock Angel sought and found forgiveness and is now a benevolent force like the six other angels.

Cholo believes that he and fellow Yazidis never had it so good: They are now free of fear of persecution for their beliefs.

“We have our temples and can practice our religion just as Muslims and Christians. They visit us on our eids [feasts] and celebrations, just as we visit them.”

According to Lazgin Khalid Barany, an English-language professor at the University of Mosul in Iraq who is a Yazidi and has studied the religion, there are about 300,000 followers in Iraq and more than 1 million worldwide.

They are reclusive in the sense that they do not seek converts and regard anyone who marries outside the faith as an outcast. Most Yazidis live in villages, raising wheat and tending olive groves as they have for centuries, he says.

Although the Yazidis are relatively small in number, there are enough adherents that the religion is self-sustaining, Barany says. Despite the temptations of the modern world and the sea of Islam around them, the Yazidis still practice their rites and customs with great solemnity. They pass on their traditions to the younger generation through regular religious studies held at their temples under the gaze of the temple “servant.”

At the Yazidi temple in Bashiqa, situated only a few hundred steps from the village mosque and the Roman Catholic church, visitors remove their shoes at the entrance and tread the cold marble into a carpeted room heated by a wood stove topped by an Arab coffeepot.

About 20 children sit or squat on the carpets and, in Arabic and their Kurdish dialect, recite by rote in a kind of singsong chant the prayers and poems of their religion, praising God and the seven angels.

The temple consists of a courtyard with a portico leading to an inner sanctum through a tiny door with ornate decoration that includes two peacocks.

“The door is always small so that man has to bow to enter it,” Cholo explained. “A man should not walk in standing up, proud, but bent to show humility.”

The room is dark and empty, its walls stained with soot. The only decorations are a sun, moon and star carved in relief on the wall beneath the peaked ceiling.

Yazidis pray three times a day, facing toward the sun, and gather for special prayers each Wednesday, their chief day of worship. They also hold daily rituals at the temple.

At a ceremony held one recent Friday at dusk, temple servant Walid abu Khuder slowly entered the sanctum carrying a pan of burning sticks. He used the flames to light wicks protruding at the four corners of another pan filled with cooking oil.

Cholo explained that the oil represented the earth and the sea, and the burning wicks the light of God reaching to the north, south, east and west.

More prayers, and then the sticks were blown out and incense was dropped on the still-glowing coals, filling the room with pungent smoke. Khuder took the pan out into the courtyard, where children lined up expectantly. He made a circuit of the courtyard, stopping to kiss the pillars lining it. As he walked past the children, they put their hands into the smoke and pulled it to their faces, as though drawing in the blessedness.

In a country faced with war, Cholo said, many of the prayers are for peace. He said that Yazidis share other Iraqis’ fears of the destruction and harm to civilians a U.S.-led assault would bring and that they do not think the country has done anything to warrant being attacked.

Even last year, villagers say, two Yazidi construction workers at a half-completed house were killed by a weapon fired from a U.S. warplane enforcing the “no-fly” zone over northern Iraq. The villagers deny that there was any military object nearby.

“No one wants war,” said Barany, “and we Yazidis, like any nation in the world, would like to live peacefully, happily, just bringing up our children in peace and prosperity.”

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