To many, the unfolding atrocities committed against the Yazidi and Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria have brought to light two groups they know little about. Let us also not forget the massacres of Shi’a Muslims by the fanatical and evil ISIL forces, but due to the decades of strife in the Middle East, Shi’a Muslims are well known to the Western Public at large.
Before the ISIL atrocities began in Iraq, I had been reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, Javier Sierra, from Spain. The novel, The Lost Angel is his third to be translated into English, after The Secret Supper (about the real story behind Da Vinci’s art) and The Lady in Blue (about the documented astral projection of a 17th Century Nun). I highly recommend all three, and his other novels if you read Spanish. He takes an investigative journalist’s approach to mysterious situations, and weaves a very interesting tale. His work is what Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (laughably terrible!) and The Da Vinci Code (OK) should have been with better research.
In The Lost Angel, the Yazidis are major players, so I did some research about this group I had heard about, but didn’t know about in detail.
Who are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis, who speak Kurdish and sometimes Arabic, follow a very ancient religion, partially derived from Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian faith which was well established by the 6th Century BCE. Yazdânism is used today to denote several associated religions/cultures in the area: Yazidi, Yâresân, and Chinarism/Ishikism (Ishik Alevism). The Yazidi and their associated faiths were the dominant religions of the Zagros Mountains in Iran and Iraq until the Islamization of the region in the 10th Century. Any of these are targets of the blood-thirsty ISIL forces.
Over the centuries, the Yazidis took in concepts and practices from Judaism, Christianity (in both their Orthodox and Gnostic variations) and Islam, and is today a syncretistic monotheistic faith. In turn, there may have been Yazidis influences on Sufi Muslim Spirituality.
It’s Cosmology is actually older than Zoroastrianism, and posits One God who created the cosmos, and entrusted the world’s operation to a Heptad of Angels known as Heft Sirr, The Seven Mysteries. The leader of the Heptad is Melek Taus (Tawûsê Melek), the Peacock Angel, who is the central figure in the Yazidi religion.
Here is an excellent summary of the Yazidi Creation Story from Wikipedia:
They believe that God first created Tawûsê Melek from his own illumination (Ronahî) and the other six archangels were created later. God ordered Tawûsê Melek not to bow to other beings. Then God created the other archangels and ordered them to bring him dust (Ax) from the Earth (Erd) and build the body of Adam. Then God gave life to Adam from his own breath and instructed all archangels to bow to Adam. The archangels obeyed except for Tawûsê Melek. In answer to God, Tawûsê Melek replied, “How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust.” Then God praised him and made him the leader of all angels and his deputy on the Earth.
Unfortunately for the Yazidis, this sounds like this narrative from the Quran:
It is We Who created you and gave you shape; then We bade the angels prostrate to Adam, and they prostrate; not so Iblis; He refused to be of those who prostrate. (Allah) said: “What prevented thee from prostrating when I commanded thee?” He said: “I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire, and him from clay.” —Quran, sura 7 (Al-A’raf) ayat 11-12.
He (Iblis) said: “Give me respite till the day they are raised up.” (Allah) said: “Be thou among those who have respite.” He said: “Because thou hast thrown me out of the way, lo! I will lie in wait for them on thy straight way: Then will I assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left: Nor wilt thou find, in most of them, gratitude (for thy mercies).”
(Allah) said: “Get out from this, disgraced and expelled. If any of them follow thee,- Hell will I fill with you all. —Quran sura 7 (Al-Aʻraf), ayah 14-18
“As for My servants, no authority shalt thou have over them:” Enough is thy Lord for a Disposer of affairs. —Quran, sura 17 (Al-Isra), ayah 65
After this, Iblis (a Jinn), was known as “Shaytan” (Arabic: شيطان), cognate to the Hebrew Ha-Satan or Satan (“the accuser,” or “the adversary”).
Due to the similarity of the two narratives, Muslims and Christians have historically often identified Yazidi’s Peacock Angel with their own Satan, and have therefore traditionally regarded the Yazidis as “Devil Worshippers.” This is not only offensive to Yazidis, but is also clearly untrue.Under the despotic and cruel rule of the Ottoman Turks, there were no fewer than 72 massacres of Yezidis in today’s Syria and Iraq during the 18th-19th centuries. Gradually, the world has been discovering the truth of this ancient faith:
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the Yezidis, and a lot of contradictory information. But I was drawn to this aspect of their beliefs: Yezidis don’t have a Satan. Malak Ta’us, an archangel, God’s favorite, was not thrown out of heaven the way Satan was. Instead, he descended, saw the suffering and pain of the world, and cried. His tears, thousands of years’ worth, fell on the fires of hell, extinguishing them. If there is evil in the world, it does not come from a fallen angel or from the fires of hell. The evil in this world is man-made. Nevertheless, humans can, like Malak Ta’us, live in this world but still be good. — Tony Lagouranis in Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq.
(Tony is one of the service-people who have openly admitted the horrors of Abu Grhaib and his own participation, and is harshly critical of his superiors and politicians who order this torture. He is an accomplished linguist, having studied Ancient Greek at the Humanities College, St. John’s College, Santa Fe NM, and Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey CA.)
Estimates of the size of the Yazidi population vary widely, from 70,000 to 500,000, mainly in Syria (Sinjar) and Iraq (Ninevah Province). I recommend learning more about the Yezidi Community here. We cannot allow this ancient people to perish.
It is to be remembered that Christianity is 600 years older than Islam, and Roman Syria was an important part of the Christian world. One of the most important Sees was Antioch:
καὶ εὑρὼν ἤγαγεν εἰς Ἀντιόχειαν. ἐγένετο δὲ αὐτοῖς καὶ ἐνιαυτὸν ὅλον συναχθῆναι ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ καὶ διδάξαι ὄχλον ἱκανόν, χρηματίσαι τε πρώτως ἐν Ἀντιοχείᾳ τοὺς μαθητὰς Χριστιανούς.
… and when he (Barnabas) had found him (Saul), he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.” Acts 11:26
Peter was the first Bishop (ἐπίσκοπος, episkopos) of Antioch, before he was martyred in Rome. Over the centuries, divisions within Christianity caused there to be more than one Patriarch of Antioch. At present there are five (from Wikipedia–and the list is accurate, as I was myself ordained in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch in 1987 when I was a Jesuit.):
- Gregory III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria, and Jerusalem of the Greek Melkites. Gregory III is the leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church that is in full communion with the Catholic Church and uses the Byzantine liturgy. His see is based in Damascus.
- Ignatius Joseph III Yonan, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East of the Syrians. Ignace Joseph III is the leader of the Syrian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church that is in full communion with Catholic Church’s Holy See at the Vatican and uses the Eastern Antiochene liturgy. The see is based in Beirut, Lebanon.
- Bechara Boutros Rahi, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Levant. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church that is in full communion with the Catholic Church and uses the Maronite (Western Antiochene) liturgy. His see is based in Bkerké, Lebanon.
- John X of Antioch was elected Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East on December 17, 2012. John X is the leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and thus is one of the major hierarchs in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His see is based in Damascus and uses the Byzantine liturgy.
- Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. Ignatius Aphrem II Karim is the Supreme Head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, which is part of the Oriental Orthodox communion and uses the Eastern Antiochene liturgy. His see is based in Damascus.
As you can see, it would be a major disaster for world Christianity if Damascus or Lebanon would fall to ISIL. About 10% of Syria is Christian, including the Armenian Oriental Orthodox Christians there, as well as Chaldean Catholics, and members of the Church of the East.
Without going into too many details, let me quickly sketch the real structure of world Christianity, largely unknown to the western public.
There are five great “Traditions” of Christianity:
3. Antiochian/Syriac (Eastern and Western)
All mainline institutional Christians descend from one of these Traditions. (Originally, the Western European Churches were independent, like the Orthodox Churches are today, but gradually came under Roman Catholic rule.)
Today, there are four Communions of ancient Christians which reflects the schisms that Christianity has endured, and one later group:
1. Catholic Communion of Churches (1 Western: Roman Catholic; 21 Eastern: Byzantine, Chaldean, Coptic, Malabar, etc.)
2. Eastern Orthodox Communion of Churches (15 Churches: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, etc.)
3. Oriental Orthodox Communion of Churches (6 Churches: Armenian, Coptic, etc.)
4. Church of the East (2 Churches: Chaldean Christians and Assyrian Church of India)
5. The Western Christians who broke from Rome protesting the abuses in the Church are the Anglicans and the many Protestant Churches.
As you can see, the current Communions of Churches cross Tradition boundaries, except The Eastern Orthodox who are all Byzantine, and the Church of the East, who are all East Antiochian).
There are many other groups of Christians, but these are the “Institutional” Churches.”
Christianity forms a significant minority in the Middle East.
Christians in Iraq:
In 1987, it was estimated that there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq or 8% of the population. Today, there are probably 450,000-200,000, and with flight from the ISIL butchers, every day fewer.
The majority are ethnically Assyrian, and worship in the East Syriac Tradition in several variants:
- Chaldean Catholic Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church
- Syriac Catholic Church
- Ancient Church of the East
- Assyrian Church of the East
Others are of the Byzantine Tradition, and are mostly Arabs:
Others are ethnically Armenian and worship in the Armenian Tradition:
And the Western Christians of the Roman / Latin Tradition, mostly Arabs:
Today, there are no Christians in Mosul, the first time in the history of Iraq. Large communities of the Chaldean Christians live in the Detroit MI and Turlock CA areas, and in the UK. Others have fled to Jordan, Syria, and Iran.
Christianity was brought to what is today Iraq and Iran, part of the ancient Persian Empire, by Apostles Thomas (of the 12) and Addai (Thaddaeus–of the 70), and his pupils Aggagi and Mari.
Christianity in Syria
Christians also have a very important place in Syrian Society. Syria was once part of the heartland of the Roman Empire. As we have seen, three Christian Patriarchal Churches have their headquarters in Damascus (Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Antiochian Eastern Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox Church). About 10% of Syrians are Christians:
- Antiochian Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox)
- Melkite Greek-Catholic (Eastern Catholic)
- Syriac Orthodox (Oriental Orthodox)
- Armenian Apostolic (Oriental Orthodox)
- Latin Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics and Maronites (Catholic Communion)
- Anglicans and Protestants
A Tragic Exodus
The Middle East was once a very multi-cultural society, with the older communities of Jews and Christians, and the newer Muslims in every major city, each playing a vibrant part of civil society. Now, certain forces within Islam seek to create a monocultural landscape to the detriment of all.
Recently, a top level conference, In Defense of Christians (major delegates seen above), was held in Washington, D.C. It’s conclusion was that “Defending Christians cannot only be about Christians… It must be about promoting good — the common good — and defending all people, Christian and non-Christian alike,” as the NCR reports. “We have to fight extremism together,” said Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. “Living together should be conceived by Muslims and Christians alike as a divine vision and plan.”
Unfortunately, this major and important event only reached Mainstream American Media because of idiotic Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s stupid blunder and cry-baby reaction. In speaking to the meeting, Cruz said “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.” As the audience contained Lebanese and Palestinian Christians, and others, the conference loudly booed him. He stalked off, saying, “If you do not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.”
Of course, Cruz is an imbecile. Unfortunately he is a powerful and dangerous imbecile. As Fr. Michael La Civita, of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said, as reported by NCR: “Ted Cruz’s only crusade, Ted Cruz’s only interest, is Ted Cruz.”
Naturally, ultimately Jews, Christians and Muslims must all learn to live in Peace, and Israel will have a vital role in this. My old teacher, Melkite Archbishop Joseph Raya had been Archbishop of Galilee and experienced good relations with the Israeli government. But that conference was not the occasion to push Cruz’s self-serving point. He doesn’t care about Israel or Middle-Eastern Christians. He is just promoting himself.
As you might imagine, the knee-jerk right-wing press have praised Cruz for his bêtise. (French: Foolishness, stupidity. Literally bête [beast] + ise.)
So, let’s pray and work to defend the religious liberties of all people in the Middle East, and work to maintain its multicultural character, so important in our history.
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant