"Devil-Worshippers" Fear Renewed Persecution

Yazidis are uncertain whether to identify with the Kurds or campaign for separate rights.

"Devil-Worshippers" Fear Renewed Persecution

Yazidis are uncertain whether to identify with the Kurds or campaign for separate rights.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Most of Iraq's myriad ethnic and religious communities have wrestled with questions of identity in the tumultuous year that has followed the fall of Saddam.


But for members of the Yazidis – a pre-Islamic faith professed by a minority of Kurds - the stakes may be higher than for most.


For the Yazidis, the choice between identifying themselves with the Kurds or seeking special status, is a particularly urgent one.


Widely believed by other Iraqis to be devil-worshippers, they claim a long history of persecution by Muslim rulers, including Saddam.


Now, many Yazidis fear, the advent of a new Iraq in which religious parties will likely have strong influence has put them again at risk.


That fear is at its most palpable in the area of Khanke, a cluster of Yazidi wheat-farming hamlets in the plains southwest of the Kurdish town of Dohuk.


In early March, residents were struck down by a strange malady, whose symptoms were vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and headaches.


Municipal officials blamed water pollution for the malady, which claimed the life of Khanke's young doctor and affected scores of others on March 7 and 8.


Many inhabitants of the villages believe that they were deliberately poisoned because of their religion.


According to Jaafar Hamed Atu, a 95-year-old pir, or elder, of Khanke, the community's problems began when the Saddam regime fell, and the village - formerly in the Kurdish self-rule area - was linked once again to the nearby city of Mosul, a centre of Sunni radicals.


Atu, along with many other villagers, believes that Islamists from Mosul poured poison into the tank at the pumping station from where the hamlet draws its water.


"They say in Mosul that to kill one Yazidi is better than to kill 50 Jews," said Atu.


Local health and water officials have a more prosaic explanation for the malady.


Dr Mohammed Ahmed of the Emergency Hospital in Dohuk, where scores of residents checked themselves in, say that lab analysis revealed a likely outbreak of dysentery, endemic to these parts.


Haval Riber, director of water and sewage for Dohuk, meanwhile, says that the probable cause of the outbreak was the bacterium E. coli. It’s thought it had incubated in the carcasses of dogs destroyed in a recent cull, and had entered the water supply through cracked pipes.


He points out that the parts of Khanke immediately adjacent to the pumping station were not affected by the outbreak, as they would have been were the station's tank poisoned.


The case has not been entirely settled.


Doctors at Dohuk's centre for forensic medicine say that they were unable to establish the cause of death of 26-year-old Ayhan Mohammed Murad, a young Muslim doctor recently posted to Khanke.


Murad's body has been sent for examination to Baghdad "to finish the story... to make sure," said Sabr Rashid, a biologist at the centre.


Nonetheless, the case reflects fear on the part of some Yazidis that they won’t fare well in the new Iraq.


Not only are they a minority, but their faith is not accorded the same respect by Muslims as Christians or Jews, both of which are mentioned in the Quran as protected "Peoples of the Book".


As with all Iraqi ethnic groups, the number of Yazidis is a point of contention.


Iraqi Yazidi leaders often claim between 700,000 to one million adherents, although others estimate numbers are as few as 100,000.


Yazidis are concentrated in northern Iraq, but smaller communities exist in Syria, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia.


Yazidis claim a history of persecution by Muslim Arabs.


Sagvan Murad of the religion's Lalish Cultural and Social Centre in Dohuk describes the so-called "72 genocides" suffered by the faith, mostly attempts by the Ottoman Empire to forcibly convert Yazidis to Islam.


For many Kurds, the Yazidis are guardians of their ancestral faith.


The Yazidis claim that their religion dates back at least six millennia, and associate it with the early Persian religion of Mithraism.


The remnants of their scripture - much of which was lost during the persecutions of the Ottoman Empire - are written in Kurdish.


For this, even Muslim Kurds accord Yazidis respect.


"They are the real Kurds," said one member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, whose eyes light up at their mention. The 21-pointed sun on the Kurdish flag is a Yazidi symbol, he observes.


For many Muslim Arabs, however, the Yazidis are devil-worshippers due to their veneration of Taous Malek, the Peacock Angel, who is identified with Iblis or Shaitan, the Arabic names for Satan.


Whereas Muslim theology says the angel was punished by God for refusing to bow to man, Murad says, the Yazidis hold that he was rewarded for recalling God's earlier commandment to worship no other deity.


Yazidis say Taous Malek is a benevolent figure, charged with protecting the world, and they refuse to speak the word Shaitan since “it is like an insult for the angel”, said Murad.


The Shia, meanwhile, identify Yazidism with Yazid bin Muawiyya, the caliph whose armies killed the Imam Hussein in the seventh century, and a key villain in the Shia narrative.


The Yazidis say that they derive their name from a proto-Kurdish name meaning "followers of God" (God is "Yazdan" in Kurdish).


Politically, the Yazidis are divided between the more urbanised communities near Dohuk, and the villages of the Sinjar hills, an isolated region near the Syrian border.


Dohuk Yazidis are found mainly in the Kurdish self-rule area that has existed since 1991, and tend to associate themselves with Kurdish nationalism.


Many of the Sinjar Yazidis, who lived in areas controlled by Saddam, allied themselves with the Baath.


For Pir Jaafar Atu, the only protection for the Yazidis is to remain part of the Kurdish self-rule zone.


Under Saddam, he says, followers of the faith were driven off their land - Khanke itself is an amalgamation of Yazidis from 12 other villages destroyed by Saddam in his 1987 campaign to remove Kurds from strategically sensitive regions.


The former president also banned the construction of Yazidi centres of worship, Atu says, and he expects no better from Saddam's successors, "With the Arabs, there can be no freedom.”


However, a delegation of Yazidis from Sinjar arrived in Baghdad in mid-March to lobby for greater rights.


Demonstrators bearing banners declaring that "Yazidis are a nationality of themselves, separate from the Kurds", gathered outside Iraq's Governing Council on March 8, demanding special recognition in the constitution.


These Yazidis say they sought protection from Saddam, but that they were betrayed.


"Saddam said ‘Yazidis are a flower in my garden' and they were faithful. They had an honourable role in defending Iraq during the Iranian war, and many of Saddam's guards were Yazidi," said demonstration leader Amin Farhan Jejo.


However, he said, after the war documents were discovered in the Mosul intelligence headquarters calling for Yazidi villages to be destroyed, and for their residents to be forcibly intermarried with Arabs in an attempt to assimilate them.


"Iraq's former rulers used Yazidis as playing card in their hands, and this is a typical example," Jejo lamented.


Prejudice against Yazidis remains strong. The IWPR found numerous Muslims in both Baghdad and Mosul who associated the faith with devil-worship or with Yazid bin Muawiya.


In Mosul, IWPR journalists were unable to find anyone who had heard of the Islamist propaganda authorising the killing of Yazidis, that Pir Jaafar Atu claimed existed. But several people did claim that members of the religion were impure.


"A Muslim visiting Yazidis should slaughter a sheep [offered to him] by himself to acknowledge their hospitality, but they shouldn't eat it, and neither should he eat their food," said Abdullah Mohammed, a Shia Turcoman taxi driver.


"Why should the Yazidis be given rights?" asked one cigarette vendor, eyeing the demonstration outside the Governing Council in Baghdad. "They don't believe in God."


Aqil Jabbar and Wisam al-Jaff are Iraqi journalists.


Support our journalists