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Deadly Suicide Attack in Iraq Shines Light on Little Known Minority

On Tuesday, suicide truck bombers killed at least 400 northern Iraqi villagers who belong to the Yazidi religious minority. Before now, little has been said about this Kurdish-speaking community living mostly in the northern province of Mosul. VOA's Margaret Besheer has more on the Yazidis who are often viewed with suspicion because of their religious beliefs.

The origins of the Yazidi are obscure. Most scholars believe they are of Kurdish origin, but some think they are of mixed Kurdish-Arab origin. The sect has roots dating back to pre-Islamic times, but it is generally believed to have been founded in the 12th century by Sheikh Adi bin Musafer.

Edmund Ghareeb, author of The Historical Dictionary of Iraq, says Yazidi legend says an apparition of a peacock angel, known as Malak Ta'us, took Sheikh Adi to heaven and revealed the faith to him.

"For seven years he stayed there and was taught the truth of everything by God while his body slept. After seven years his soul was taken back to earth," he said.

Sheikh Adi then wrote the Book of Illuminations. Louay Bahry is an adjunct scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute. "As he says it is the instructions of Malak Ta'us, the angel," he noted. "Sheikh Adi, he thinks he represents the spirit of Malak Ta'us and that this spirit is the same as his own. Perhaps he considers himself as a reincarnation of Malak Ta'us."

Yazidis believe in the existence of seven angels, with Malak Ta'us as the supreme one.

Their most important feast takes place in early October at the tomb of Sheikh Adi in the town of Lalish, near Mosul. During the seven-day long feast, a bronze icon of the peacock angel Malak Ta'us is presented to worshippers.

Ghareeb says the Yazidi faith also draws elements from other religions.

"They took prohibition of certain foods from Islam," he explained. "There is an element of baptism, of drinking wine, of Eucharistic rites from Zoroastrianism and Christianity. There is fasting, sacrifice and pilgrimage from Islam."

But many Yazidi beliefs remain secret and little is known about them. In the past, their secrecy drew the suspicion of Christians and Muslims, and over the centuries some of their enemies have accused them of devil worship. Bahry says that is a misunderstanding.

"The misunderstanding comes really from the word Malak Ta'us," he said. "They called Malak Ta'us 'Shaytan.' And in Arabic Shaytan means Satan. In the Koran, Shaytan is Satan. That is why the Muslims and the Christians associate them with the devil and the worship of the devil."

But in Yazidi tradition, the fallen angel Lucifer, also known as Satan, has been forgiven by God and is considered a force for good, not evil.

Suspicion about the Yazidis has often led to their persecution. During Ottoman times many Yazidis who refused to convert to Islam were killed. Others fled to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria and the Caucuses, where they still have small communities. There is also a Yazidi community in Germany.

There is no reliable data on how many Yazidis there are today, but experts seem to agree they number less than one million, with their largest community being in Iraq.

In April, Iraq's Yazidis received unwanted attention when a 17-year-old Yazidi girl was stoned to death by her male relatives for her association with a Muslim boy. Cellular phone video of her murder circulated throughout Iraq drew outrage. Bahry says Yazidis are a very closed community and do not accept outsiders.

"They do not accept new converts to their beliefs," he explained. "They don't intermarry with other religions and they do not accept anyone to intermarry with other religions, so that is what started the whole problem with this young woman who was stoned to death."

The recent bombings of the Yazidi villages in northern Iraq have drawn strong condemnation from the country's political and religious leaders.