The Devil worshippers of Iraq

I’m in a community hall, on the outskirts of Celle, a north German town. On the walls are pictures of dark blue peacocks. Sitting at various tables around the room are dozens of Devil worshippers. At least, that’s what some people call them.

Though we don’t know it yet, right now several suicide bombs are going off near Mosul in Iraq, killing maybe 400. The victims belong to the same faith as those gathered here today.

They are Yezidi. And I’m here to unearth the reality of their fascinating religion. Why do they have such troubled relations with outsiders? Do they really worship the Devil?

The Yezidi of Celle are one of the largest groups of their sect outside the homeland of Kurdish Iraq. There may be 7,000 in this small town. Yezidi across the world number between 400,000 and 800,000.

Today the Yezidi in Celle don’t seem keen to talk. I’m not surprised: I have been warned about their wariness of strangers, born of centuries of appalling persecution.

Eventually a dark, thickset man turns to me. He points to one of the peacocks on the wall: “That is Melek Taus, the peacock angel. We worship him.” He sips his tea, and adds: “Ours is the oldest religion in the world. Older than Islam; older than Christianity.”

After this cryptic statement he returns to his friends.

Luckily there is another Yezidi organisation in Celle that is said to be more forthcoming. On the way to meet its spokesman, I go through the bizarre beliefs of the Yezidi.

It’s an impressive list. The Yezidi honour sacred trees. Women must not cut their hair. Marriage is forbidden in April. They refuse to eat lettuce, pumpkins, and gazelles. They avoid wearing dark blue because it is “too holy”.

They are divided strictly into castes, who cannot marry each other. The upper castes are polygamous. Anyone of the faith who marries a non-Yezidi risks ostracism, or worse. Some weeks ago a young girl was stoned to death by her Yezidi menfolk in Iraq; she had fallen in love with a Muslim and was trying to convert. The sickening murder was filmed, and posted on the internet, adding to the Yezidis’ unhappy reputation.

Yezidism is syncretistic: it combines elements of many faiths. Like Hindus, they believe in reincarnation. Like ancient Mithraists, they sacrifice bulls. They practise baptism, like Christians. When they pray they face the sun, like Zoroastrians. They profess to revile Islam, but there are strong links with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.

It’s a remarkably confusing picture. And I still haven’t got an answer to the main question: do they worship “Satan”?

In the centre of town I am greeted by Halil Savucu, a westernised spokesman for the Yezidi. Also with us is Uta Tolle, a German scholar of Yezidism.

In Halil’s Mercedes we drive into the suburbs. On the way, the two of them give me their view of the faith. “Yezidi is oral, not literary,” says Uta. “This is why it is sometimes hard to pin down precise beliefs. There are religious texts, like the Black Book, but they are not crucial. The faith is really handed down by kawwas, sort of musical preachers.”

And who is Melek Taus? Halil looks slightly uncomfortable: “We believe he is a proud angel, who rebelled and was thrown into Hell by God. He stayed there 40,000 years, until his tears quenched the fires of the underworld. Now he is reconciled to God.”

But is he good or evil? “He is both. Like fire. Flames can cook but they can also burn. The world is good and bad.”

For a Yezidi to say they worship the Devil is understandably difficult. It is their reputation as infidels – as genuine “devil worshippers” – that has led to their fierce persecution over time, especially by Muslims. Saddam Hussein intensified this suppression.

But some Yezidi do claim that Melek Taus is “the Devil”. One hereditary leader of the Yezidi, Mir Hazem, said in 2005: “I cannot say this word [Devil] out loud because it is sacred. It’s the chief of angels. We believe in the chief of angels.”

There are further indications that Melek Taus is “the Devil”. The parallels between the story of the peacock angel’s rebellion, and the story of Lucifer, cast into Hell by the Christian God, are surely too close to be coincidence. The very word “Melek” is cognate with “Moloch”, the name of a Biblical demon – who demanded human sacrifice.

The avian imagery of Melek Taus also indicates a demonic aspect. The Yezidi come from Kurdistan, the ancient lands of Sumeria and Assyria. Sumerian gods were often cruel, and equipped with beaks and wings. Birdlike. Three thousand years ago the Assyrians worshipped flying demons, spirits of the desert wind. One was the scaly-winged demon featured in The Exorcist: Pazuzu.

The Yezidi reverence for birds – and snakes – might also be extremely old. Excavations at ancient Catalhoyuk, in Turkey, show that the people there revered bird-gods as long ago as 7000BC. Even older is Gobekli Tepe, a megalithic site near Sanliurfa, in Kurdish Turkey (Sanliurfa was once a stronghold of Yezidism). The extraordinary temple of Gobekli boasts carvings of winged birdmen, and images of buzzards and serpents.

Taking all this evidence into account, a fair guess is that Yezidism is a form of bird-worship, that could date back 6,000 years or more. Over the centuries, new and powerful creeds, such as Islam and Christianity, have swept through Yezidi Kurdistan, threatening the older faith. But, like a species that survives by blending into the landscape, Yezidism has adapted by incorporating aspects of rival religions.

We’ve reached Halil’s house. “Look at this,” he says, showing me a picture of the peacock angel, and a copper sanjak – another representation of Melek Taus. When I have taken some photos, we all sit down to spaghetti bolognaise, with Halil’s wife and their chatty kids. It suddenly seems a long way from the weirdness of Devil-worship, and the violence of the Middle East.

“We Yezidi are not saints,” says Halil, “but we are a peaceful people. All we want is tolerance. We do not worship evil, we just see that the world contains good as well as bad. Darkness as well as light.”

His words are timely. While we eat our pasta, the news comes through from Iraq of the bloody slaughter of Yezidi near Mosul. Halil is deeply distraught. “I feel absolute shock and horror, I feel sick to my stomach. All Yezidi are my family. But we are so alone in the world. We need friends. Many Yezidi would like to leave Iraq, but no one will give us visas.”

He sighs, and adds: “The Yezidi have been persecuted for thousands of years, we are used to it. But we thought the new Iraq would protect minorities. We thought that things would get better when the Americans came…” And then he turns, and stares at the serene blue image, of the great peacock angel.

Iraq sect fears annihilation

KAHTANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Angry members of a minority sect in Iraq said on Thursday they feared annihilation after scores were killed in possibly the worst suicide bomb attack of the four-year conflict.

Frail clay houses in the centre of Kahtaniya, one of two villages targeted on Tuesday by garbage trucks packed with explosives, were flattened for several blocks.

Chunks of concrete and twisted aluminium lay in the street beside the destroyed homes of hundreds of Yazidis, a minority sect regarded by Sunni militants as infidels.

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A 17-year-old girl has been stoned to death in Iraq because she loved a teenage boy of the wrong religion … Miss Aswad, a member of a minority Kurdish religious group called Yezidi, was condemned to death as an “honour killing” by other men in her family and hardline religious leaders because of her relationship with the Sunni Muslim boy.

Gunmen shot and killed 23 members of an ancient religious sect in northern Iraq yesterday after stopping their bus and separating out followers of other faiths. At least 20 people were killed in car bombings in the capital. … Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a police spokesperson for Ninevah province, said the execution-style killings were in response to the killing two weeks ago of a Yazidi woman who had converted to Islam after she fell in love with a Muslim and ran off with him. Her relatives had disapproved of the match and dragged her back to Bashika, where she was stoned to death, he said.

 

Estimates of the death toll varied from 175 to 500.

“Their aim is to annihilate us, to create trouble and kill all the Yazidis because we are not Muslims,” said Abu Saeed, a grey-bearded old man in Kahtaniya.

Saeed told Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who made a short tour of the devastated area, that 51 members of his extended family had been killed. About 100 angry Yazidi men gathered as Salih met local officials.

“It’s like a nuclear site, the site of a nuclear bomb,” Salih, a Kurd, told Reuters.

The U.S. military has said al Qaeda is the prime suspect for the bombings. It had said large-scale attacks were possible before a progress report on the conflict is delivered to Congress on September 15.

U.S. forces this week began a new nationwide security push, including operations north and south of Baghdad, targeting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants and Shi’ite militias.

The U.S. military said on Thursday two soldiers had been killed and six wounded in combat north of the capital on Wednesday. A total of 3,701 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

U.S. President George W. Bush, under pressure to show results in the unpopular war, has said August could be a bloody month as troops move out of bases into smaller outposts and as al Qaeda attempts to influence debate in Washington.

“NO MORE YAZIDIS”

“Al Qaeda wants to kill all the Yazidis,” said another Kahtaniya villager, who gave his name only as Hossein. “Another bomb like this and there will be no more Yazidis left.”

Yazidis are members of a pre-Islamic Kurdish sect of several hundred thousand in northern Iraq and Syria who say they are persecuted for their beliefs.

In April, gunmen killed 23 Yazidi factory workers in Mosul in apparent retaliation for the stoning several weeks earlier of a teenaged Yazidi girl who police said had fallen in love with a Sunni Arab man and converted to Islam.

Angry Yazidis pleaded for help in the aftermath of the bombings. “We are thirsty. We have had no water for days,” Naif Kudar Ismael said in Kahtaniya, a village of about 1,600.

Nineveh province governor Duraid Kashmoula said the blasts buried entire families. He put the death toll at 220.

Zairyan Othman, minister of health in neighbouring Kurdistan, Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, said 205 were killed and 235 wounded. Iraq’s Health Ministry said on Thursday more than 150 were killed and more than 200 wounded.

The bombings were the worst coordinated attack in Iraq since November 2006, when six car bombs in different areas of Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City killed 200 people and wounded 250.

Major Rodger Lemons, operations officer for a U.S. brigade in the area, said rescue efforts were beginning to wind up.

“My assessment is there’s probably no one left alive in the rubble,” he said. He said about 600 people were homeless.

The U.S. military said between 175 and 180 people had probably been killed. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where we’ll have an exact figure,” Lemons said.

Rescuers dug through the rubble throughout Wednesday in scenes reminiscent of an earthquake zone. Bodies covered by blankets were laid in the street.

Lemons said it appeared two garbage trucks packed with explosives had been driven to each of the two villages.

In al-Jazeera, where about 800 live, Iraqi security forces shot and killed the driver of one truck outside the village.

Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Kirkuk and Aseel Kami in Baghdad