Persecuted by Saddam Hussein as Kurds and “devil worshipers,” the Yezidis pray that the worst is behind them.
LALISH, Iraq – As darkness falls over the remote mountains of northern Iraq, a man moves silently within ancient walls, setting flame to hundreds of wicks soaked in olive oil. In the dim light, shadows dance among the tombs, the urns, the black snake carved into the stones.
This is the sacred temple of the Yezidis, often – though wrongly – known as “devil worshipers.” As followers of one of the world’s oldest and most unusual religions, Yezidis practice a faith that reveres Malak Ta’us, an angel in the form of a peacock, and forbids eating lettuce, wearing the color blue or marrying in April.
But if their beliefs are far from mainstream, the Yezidis themselves reflect the great ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq, a rich melange of Christians, Kurds, Muslims, Chaldeans, Turkmen and Assyrians. And like others who suffered so much under Saddam Hussein, the Yezidis who survived his rule are determined to ensure their rights in a new and hopefully democratic Iraq.
“America is our friend and America helped all of us,” says Namir Kachow Hassan, a Yezidi (YEH-zuh-dee) who serves as a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq.
No one knows how many Yezidis there are; estimates range from less than 100,000 to 600,000. Since the U.S.-led coalition toppled Hussein, Yezidis have won a seat on the town council in Mosul. They also expect to be represented on the Iraqi Governing Council, if and when that group expands and assumes political power from the Americans on June 30.
But even in the north, the safest part of an unsafe country, the Yezidis are so worried about extremist attacks they canceled most of their traditional springtime celebrations.
“There are people in the Islamic religion who are against democracy, and there are Islamic parties that want to run all of Iraq,” Hassan says. “The Iraqi people are used to violence, used to war, so they can’t accept democracy very easily.”
A former judge, Hassan looks and acts like any other prominent Iraqi, dressed in a dark business suit with pinstriped tie. He carries a mobile phone that rings to the tune of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
But throughout much of their 4,000-year history, religious persecution has forced the Yezidis to lead secretive lives, resulting in the many falsehoods about their faith.
“They couldn’t worship and pray openly because they were afraid,” says Kheri Bozani, director of the Lalish Center in Dohuk. “If you came in the past, you couldn’t meet with the Yezidi people themselves, and so there was a lot of wrong and unfortunate information.”
The center, named for the Yezidis’ holy Lalish Temple, opened to separate fact from fiction. But Bozani concedes that most non-Yezidis still find the faith somewhat bizarre.
“Even if you lived among the Yezidis for 10 years,” he says, “you couldn’t understand us very well.”
Although it is rooted in nature, Yezidism has similarities to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
In the beginning, the Yezidis believe, God created seven angels and ordered them to pray only to him. Thousands of years later, God created Adam and, as a test, ordered the angels to pray to Adam. Six angels did, but the seventh, Malak Ta’us, refused.
“Why did you not pray to this man I created?” God asked.
“Because I remembered your command to pray only to you,” Malak Ta’us replied, according to the Yezidis’ oral tradition.
For passing the test, Malak Ta’us was made chief angel and sent to earth, where God created Eve from Adam’s rib. The angel taught Adam and Eve how to procreate, and thus did humans populate the earth.
Yezidis have no devil in their religion, and the reason they are called devil worshipers has long since been lost in the mists of time. One possibility is that both the Bible and the Koran, the Muslim holy book, talk of an angel-turned-devil who angered God and was cast out of heaven. Those of other faiths might have misconstrued Malak Ta’us as a “fallen” or bad angel even though Yezidis believe he was sent to earth because he was God’s favorite.
Another possible reason is that the snake – a symbol of goodness to Yezidis – is viewed by Christians as the serpentine devil that tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Whatever the case, Yezidis adamantly deny they are a satanic cult. “In Islam there is a God and also a devil, but in Yezidism we don’t have any term like “devil,”‘ Bozani says.
Nor do Yezidis have the concept of hell, instead believing that the souls of the dead repeatedly return to earth until they are purified. As punishment, a bad person might first come back stricken with disease or reincarnated in animal form.
“Someone like Saddam might return as a donkey,” says Murad Ali Hamed, a Yezidi teacher.
Like all Yezidis, Hamed is Kurdish, one of the 5-million non-Arabs of northern Iraq who were brutally oppressed after Hussein came to power in 1979.
As part of his “Arabization” program, Hussein drove Yezidis and other Kurds from their villages, replacing them with Arabs. Many villages were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds killed.
“The Yezidis suffered from the situation more than anybody in Iraq because of our religion first and because of our nationality second,” says Hassan, the government official.
Some Yezidis fled to Germany and other countries. But most remained in Iraq, where they were forced from their villages into crowded, squalid compounds. They were denied national identity cards, forbidden to write about their religion and barred from holding government jobs.
Yet Yezidi men were conscripted into Hussein’s army and sent to the front lines during the disastrous Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. More than a thousand lost their lives.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American and British fighter planes provided air cover to much of northern Iraq, allowing the Kurds to establish a relatively democratic government independent of Hussein’s regime. The 50,000 Yezidis living in so-called “Kurdistan” began to enjoy freedoms they had never known.
Hassan, for example, had graduated from judges’ college in Baghdad, but was barred from working in Hussein-controlled southern Iraq. After 1991, he served as a judge in Kurdistan, then became a minister for regional affairs. Hundreds of other Yezidis also got jobs in the Kurdistan government.
Most Yezidis, though, were outside Kurdistan, and for them life remained as grim as it did for the rest of Iraq’s people. Until Hussein’s regime fell last year, they were even barred from traveling to Lalish Temple, their holiest site.
Now they come by the hundreds to the 930-year-old shrine, deep in the mountains southeast of Dohuk. Here, beneath conical towers that represent the sun’s life-giving rays, they stroke the black snake carving by the door and step into smoke-darkened rooms.
Many carry colorful skeins of fabric, an offering to God that they hope will bring good luck or better health. Others sprinkle their hair with water from an underground stream.
Zim-Zim, a cave where baptisms and other holy rites are performed, remains off limits to nonbelievers. But despite their secretive reputation, Yezidis seem willing, even eager, to talk about their faith now that they are free of Hussein.
Malak Ta’us, the chief angel, is represented as a peacock, they explain, because it is a beautiful bird whose feathers include many of the colors found in nature.
The snake is revered by the Yezidis because it saved Noah’s Ark from sinking. How? By plugging a leak with its body after the ark hit a mountain.
The reason for not eating lettuce, they say, is because it’s unclean, lacking a skin or rind to protect the edible part from dirt.
Yezidism also prohibits wearing blue – a holy color because it is the hue of the sky – and eating roosters. The latter ban is widely ignored, with chicken second only to lamb in popularity at the dinner table.
“In every religion lots of things are forbidden,” notes Bozani, director of the Lalish Center. “If you bring a chicken now, I will eat it with you.”
But Yezidis still don’t marry in April because that is the holy month in which God created the world, they believe. And Yezidis can’t marry outside the faith, nor can a non-Yezidi convert.
If Christians and Muslims consider Yezidism strange, the Yezidis find it strange that certain followers of those religions have been so brutal. How can anyone who believes in God, they ask, persecute and kill people who only want to live in peace?
“We respect other religions – everyone who respects God, we respect him,” says Hamed, the teacher. “Why can’t they respect us?”