Friday 19 January 2018

Tiny religion of the ‘Peacock Angel’ faces extinction

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence, walk on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul
Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence, walk on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul

Richard Spencer and Justin Huggler

THE followers of the Peacock Angel believe they are facing their 73rd genocide. Many are already scattered across the corners of the earth, more are fleeing for their lives from their latest persecutors, and some are dying of thirst on a scorching desert mountainside.

The Yazidis have run out of places to call home.

It is not often you can record the moment when an ancient religion’s home is finally wiped out. It is like the death of the last speaker of some rare language. But this week might mark that moment for the Yazidis, one of the most colourful bands of worshippers in the Middle East, a region not lacking in colourful worshippers.

Above all other inhabitants of the fragmented, violent mess that is modern Iraq, they had reason to fear the jihadists of the Islamic State, who term them devil-worshippers. They thought they were safe in the north of the country, where they were protected by Kurdish forces, even when Islamic State’s Toyota truck-mounted warriors came sweeping through Iraq from the south-west.

But then, on Saturday, a second wave attacked and overwhelmed their biggest town, Sinjar, driving them out and into the desert. About 100,000 are thought to have made it to camps and other places of refuge further north, inside the Kurdish Autonomous Region itself. But thousands more – estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000 people – are now surrounded in the fierce July heat of the Iraqi desert, all exit routes cut off.

Some are preparing to stand and fight, others are simply hiding out in caves in the desert hills. Some are already burying their children as they succumb to dehydration and the hostile conditions.

But no one will be able to say it could not have been foreseen. The more prejudiced of their Sunni Muslim neighbours always despised the Yazidis, using them as bogeymen to frighten their children.

There is reason for their association with devil-worshippers, though hardly a good one.

The semi-deity worshipped by the Yazidis, known as Malek Tawwus, or the Peacock Angel, can easily be identified with Satan – the Peacock Angel, like Lucifer, fell from grace, but in the Yazidis’ eyes was pardoned and restored to glory. And so, to the Yazidis’ enemies, Malek Tawwus really is Satan, and, if you are a jihadist of the Islamic State variety, that means they can be killed with impunity.

The truth, of course, is somewhat different. While many in the Middle East see Yazidism as a breakaway sect from Islam or Christianity, it is in fact an entirely separate, pre-existing religion with its own belief system.

Yazidis do not believe in heaven or hell, but in reincarnation, which they call the soul “changing its clothes”. Their religious practices certainly mark them out. They never wear the colour blue. They are not allowed to eat lettuce.

They practise a form of elopement, where a man must “kidnap” his bride with her own consent, but without her parents’ knowledge.

They believe one of their holy books, the Black Book, was stolen by the British in colonial times and is kept in London. While the origins of their beliefs are shrouded in mystery, they have kept their religion alive through the Talkers – Yazidi men who are taught the entire text of the missing book by heart as children and pass it on to their own sons in turn. (Daily Telegraph, London)

‘They do not believe in heaven or hell. They never wear the colour blue. They are not allowed to eat lettuce’

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