Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peacock Worshipers


Earlier this week, I paid one of my most interesting visits to Shaikhan, a northern Iraqi town boasting one of the oldest and most distinctive religions of the world. That is the Yazidi religion.

It was a 3-hour drive going from Erbil, the capital of the oil-rich semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. After passing by a few newly discovered oil fields, I arrived at the gate that takes me to Lalish, Yazidi’s holiest place where I saw hundreds of flames. But this time they are not oil flames.

Lalish is the sole and non-duplicable shrine which Yazidis from around the world visit. It is a resemblance to Islam’s Makkah in Saudi Arabia where Muslims go on pilgrimage every year.

The security gate was created to ward off attacks from Islamic extremists who see Yazidis as “infidels” or “Satan worshipers.” Yazidis worship peacock, a bird that they see as a representation to their God or Angele.

But the security man opened the gate for me without checking. It’s perhaps due to the fact the place is under the control of Kurdistan, a region praised for its safety and religious tolerance.

In September 2007, followers of this tiny religious group living in other parts of Iraq came under most bloody attack since the US-led invasion in 2003. That attack for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility took more than 400 lives.

However, Yazidis say their religion is much older than Islam dating back to before Prophet Abraham. They say it currently has 500,000 followers in Iraq. Yazidis exist in Europe too particularly Germany. Most of them have fled the country inthe past few years.

Yazidi religion is, indeed, distinctive from most other religions especially Islam and Christianity. As an essential difference, Yazidis don’t have missionaries as they refuse to accept anybody else converting into their religion. Yazidis should be born as Yazidis, a difference that has far reaching social consequences such as refusing to allow inter-religious marriages.

On the other hand, just like how it’s in Islam, a Yazidi can’t switch their religion to another religion; doing so would lead to the converted person be damned, if not killed.

When it comes to praying, Yazidis practice prayer three times a day: At sunrise, at sunset and at night (before going to sleep).

Each time before they pray, they set more than 300 fires in wall holes, as a sign to the fact that Yazidis have a special respect to fire. Yazidi is said to have been the religion for all Kurds before Islam conquered the area.

Like Yazidis, Kurds, who are now overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, have special respect to fire. On March 20, Kurdish New Year’s Eve, Kurds set big fires on high places such as citadels and mountains to celebrate Nawroz.

One interesting thing that I realized while I was at Lalish was that everybody I met there was barefoot. However, I was allowed to be wearing my shoes except when going to the actual temple, which includes an old stone-made house and a water cave.

Fresh and drinkable water stemming from the mountains flows through the cave 24/7.

In addition to praying, Yazidis are a strong believer of fortune telling. Inside the temple, men and women throw a piece of cloth onto a smooth stone placed high on the shrine’s wall. Everybody can only throw the cloth three times; the lucky person is the one whose piece stays on the stone at least once,

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