Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shrine Unites Muslims and Christians

Different faiths have been celebrated in the same holy place for centuries.
By Dilshad Razaq

Kastro Ishaq lit a candle in the corner of a cave near the northern Iraq town of Shaqlawa. The smoke from the candle rose over the head of Sabah Ismail as he raised his hands in prayer to God.


Ishaq is a Christian and Ismail a Muslim. In a country divided by ethnic and religious differences, this shrine in the Kurdish region has brought members of the two faiths together for centuries.


Muslims call the shrine Sheikh Wsu Rahman, while to the Christians it is Raban Buya.


“What is important for both of us is the holy place, regardless of what names it has," said Ishaq.


The cave is located in the foothills of the Safeen Mountain in the governorate of Erbil. Vineyards and orchards line the twisting road that leads to the shrine. The floor of the cave is paved with stones covered in the wax from thousands of candles.


Many stories and beliefs shared by both Muslims and Christians have grown up around this place.


In front of the cave there is a broad, sloping stone, lying on a slight incline. Ishaq told how the stone is used by barren women who wish to conceive, “They rub against the stone, and another person usually has to catch them to keep them from falling. That’s how they wish for a baby from the holy shrine."


Zabt Hanna of Baghdad credits the shrine with helping her conceive her only son, "After I gave birth to six daughters, I visited this shrine after one of my relatives suggested I do so. I have a strong faith, and I asked for a boy from Raban Buya."


Mam Abdullah Boreechi, a 70-year -old resident of Shaqlawa, is firmly in the sceptical camp, saying, "I don't regard it as a holy place, and what they say about its ability to give children is not true.”


There are conflicting accounts about the shrine’s history. Some people believe it has its origins in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, while others say it dates to the fourth century when three hunters died in the cave while seeking shelter during a snowstorm.


Others tell how a man called Sheikh Yousif worshipped there and made it famous.


Shamasha Michael Kusa, now 90, is the author of “The History of Shaqlawa”. He says the Christian name of the cave comes from Raban Baya, a sixth-century Christian also known as Ber Sarkeez.


Kusa said Shaqlawa has long been a centre for many faiths. He recalls that until the middle of the 20th century there were a large number of Jews who also worshipped in the area.


“Having three different religions but common traditions made us closer," he said.


The cave is by no means the only holy place in the area – there are dozens of other shrines around Shaqlawa where Christians and Muslims pray alongside.


Mullah Othman, the preacher at the Meeran mosque, said the cave has helped people through times of tragedy as well as happiness.


"This shrine has been shared since the times of our ancestors,” he said. “Without drawing distinctions, each religion regarded it as its own.”


The mullah recalled one incident in 1988, when 23 Muslims and Christians were buried alive by Saddam Hussein’s men. “After we found them, we buried them in the same cemetery without separating them [by faith]," said Othman.


Dilshad Razaq Kawany is an IWPR trainee in Erbil.