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Report from Iraq: religion lends Yazidis a profound resilience in the face of persecution

Pilgrims assemble to visit the mausoleum and shrine of Sheikh Adi in the valley of Lalish. Tyler Fisher, Author provided

Report from Iraq: religion lends Yazidis a profound resilience in the face of persecution

Pilgrims assemble to visit the mausoleum and shrine of Sheikh Adi in the valley of Lalish. Tyler Fisher, Author provided

Iraq’s Yazidis maintain an oral tradition that tallies the massacres inflicted upon them over the centuries. Some say there have been 72, others 73. Whatever the number, genocidal campaigns against this ethno-religious minority are a recurring feature of their history.

Lately, the tally of atrocities has grown. This embattled minority is recovering from the 2014 pogroms it endured at the hands of Islamic State (IS), which regards the Yazidis as apostates or “devil worshippers”, and the ongoing enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and children within IS’s self-declared caliphate.

There are about 650,000 Yazidis in Iraq and as many as 2m in the wider diaspora. They forbid both the conversion of outsiders and the desertion of those born into the faith. Their creed combines elements of Sufism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, born at the geographical and theological crossroads of their historic homeland in northern Mesopotamia.

Claiming to follow the world’s oldest religion, they are essentially monotheistic but revere an array of angels, both good and malevolent. These beliefs have made them a particular target for jihadists.

As part of a broader effort to build an inclusive and responsive public institution of higher learning at Iraqi Kurdistan’s Soran University, we sought out Yazidi perspectives in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh and Soran. Throughout September 2015, we spoke with Yazidi survivors, laymen and clergy in northern Iraq about what the latest wave of persecution means for their faith.

Prophecy fulfilled

One refugee camp we visited on the outskirts of Rwanduz houses ten Yazidi families. The Kurdish Peshmerga and allied local militias have wrested control of their home villages, Sinûnê and Khana Sor, from IS forces, but it is still too dangerous for them to go home.

Regarding matters of religion, they express a chastened equanimity. After all, they say, the present suffering was prophesied.

The oldest man at the camp, Sado Elyas, put it this way: “A hundred years ago, the white-bearded elders (kuchk) foretold that the present generation would face an onslaught of persecution. They described the IS attack exactly: some Yazidis would escape to the mountain and later be rescued.”

Sado Elyas and Khalid Qasim discuss Yazidi prophecies at the refugee camp near Rwanduz, Iraqi Kurdistan. Tyler Fisher, Author provided

The experience, he said, has reminded this community of the importance of their traditions: “Over time, people lost faith in the elders and viewed them as perpetually gloomy naysayers. The youth forgot them amid the distractions of new technologies. But what happened last year showed us that we need to listen again to the elders.”

His nephew, Khalid Qasim, added his own recollection of the prophecy, with a glimmer of hope: “The 100-year-old prophecy also said that circumstances for the Yazidis will deteriorate even further, but after the destruction of Yunus’s (Jonah’s) tomb in Mosul, the Yazidis’ situation will begin to improve.”

There is an air of fatalism in the reaction of these refugees to the terrible events of recent years. But while their heartache is all too apparent, the IS rampage has in fact renewed their confidence in their faith and their optimism for their community’s prospects.

Rituals resumed

On September 23, we joined a steady stream of barefoot pilgrims, young and old, at the valley of Lalish, the Yazidis’ most sacred site. The valley is a mere 30 miles from the front lines of the Islamic State, but the Yazidis defiantly observed their annual Éida Hejya, or Pilgrimage Festival, this year. Last year’s pilgrimage was cancelled due to the security situation and out of respect for the many in mourning. Wednesday, the Yazidis’ weekly holy day and the first day of Creation, marked the restoration of this rite.

The gathering in Lalish was deliberately low-key, subdued but not sombre. Pilgrims reverently kissed the primeval trees, which they trace back to Eden on this site, and knelt on the stones where they believe the scales of the Final Judgement will stand.

Yet they also skipped around the catafalque of their foremost saint, Sheikh Adi, made wishes by tossing handkerchiefs, and scattered sweets around freshly baptised toddlers.

The baptisms at the Kanîya Spî (White Spring) of Lalish are a striking demonstration of the Yazidis’ resolute hope and confidence concerning their ultimate survival as a people. While international headlines depict them as a culture on the brink of extinction, they perceive themselves as a nation divinely spared.

Sheikh Dashti. Tyler Fisher, Author provided

“Many empires have arisen and vanished, but we have remained,” Sheikh Dashti reflected in the shade of the shrine at Lalish. “Yazidis are created by God. We are God’s nation. We only rely on God to protect us. No matter how many persecutions are unleashed on us, we believe that we will be preserved, because we bear God’s name, as God’s nation.”

A priestly teacher among the Yazidis, Sheikh Dashti summarised in this way a doctrine from which Yazidis draw strength and reassurance. Indeed, it is fundamental to their identity. The name Yazidi itself derives from a phrase that points to the Creator: Êz dî, “the One who created me.”

A brief sojourn

Zêrê, a mother of eight, defied the odds and escaped from the province of Sinjar with all of her children. They now live as refugees in Dohuk and visited Lalish for the pilgrimage.

“I tell my children to look to the future, rather than focus on our present ordeal,” she told us. “I comfort them by reminding them that God is with us. God will protect them. Whatever happens, it is God’s will.” Her family hopes to return to their village when the forces of the Islamic State are decisively driven from the region.

Luqman Suliman explains Yazidi concepts of suffering to Tyler Fisher at the principal Yazidi shrine in Lalish. Nahro Zagros, Author provided

By turning their hopes to a brighter future, ancient traditions, and transcendent designs, the Yazidis are reframing their suffering as a momentary tribulation. At Lalish, Luqman Suliman, a schoolteacher in nearby Sheikhan, cited a Yazidi proverb to express this: “For us, this world is a wayside inn. You are a visitor today; tomorrow you leave; other visitors will arrive.”

The cluster of shrines and sleeping quarters in the valley of Lalish is a vivid illustration of this philosophy. By custom, only one family resides at the site, while the surrounding apartments serve as temporary lodgings for pilgrims and other wayfarers. But in the months following the Sinjar massacres, refugee tents filled the courtyards and rooftops of the shrines.

The tents folded as refugees acquired longer-term accommodation, and now the valley echoes again with murmured wishes and brief outbreaks of jubilation – proof that the Yazidis’ distinctive religion, which has made them a target for so much persecution, is also a source of profound resilience.