13 Aug 2014

Ancient Yazidi culture faces attempted genocide – again

Back in 2003, in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq, I went to visit the Yazidis who live near Mosul.

Saddam Hussein wanted to prove to the world that under his rule, Iraq’s minorities were protected, so this was a story journalists were encouraged to cover.

In the town of Bashiqa, we saw their conical shaped temples and learned that eternal flames burnt inside.

Ancient Religion Lives On In Rural IraqYashidi temples in the northern Iraqi village of Lalesh

A group of old men in a cafe tried to explain the tenets of their faith – many Muslims accuse the Yazidis of being devil-worshippers, but in fact their revered Peacock Angel, Melek Taus, dwelt for 40,000 years in hell until his tears quenched the flames, and then God recalled him to heaven. He embodies both good and evil, hence his holiness. He fell, but rose again.

The idiosyncracies of this ancient religion, which seeems to combine elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Sufi Islam and Judaism but pre-dates them all, continue to fascinate.

Yazidis never wear blue because it is too holy.

They don’t eat lettuce, cabbage or pumpkin – reportedly something to do with the sound of the words which rhyme with the Kurdish for devil. Some trees are regarded as sacred, as are certain birds and snakes.

Once a Yazidi, always a Yazidi – you can’t convert in or out. That can cause problems – there have been reports of Yazidi women who want to marry Muslims being beaten up or even killed by male relatives.

The Yazidis have long been poor and vulnerable, their history recording 72 attempts at genocide since the seventh century.

Now they face the 73rd, as zealots from the Islamic State try to wipe them out, condemning them as infidels.

The danger for those on Mt Sinjar is not just that individuals may die – as if that wasn’t bad enough – but that the Yazidis as a community may be all but destroyed.

Fewer than 800,000 Yazidis are believed to remain worldwide, most of them in Iraq, the rest in Syria, Armenia and Georgia. Others have fled to Germany. As long as the Islamic State controls much of central Iraq they are in peril.

When I visited in 2003, a Yazidi doctor told me that they felt safe under Saddam, but after the dictator was ousted, he contacted me to apologise.

“I lied to you,” he said. “I never supported Saddam, but I was afraid to say otherwise.”

I reassured him that I had known that all along – everyone was forced to declare their support for Saddam. He – like so many other Iraqis I met that year – was optimistic that life would improve under US occupation and then freedom.

He was wrong, of course. Life is worse.

The Yazidis believe in reincarnation – when they die “the soul changes its clothes”. But they face more danger as a community now than ever before.

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