LALISH, Iraq: At the Yazidi faith’s most revered shrine at Lalish in northern Iraq, teenager Ezdan Omar closes his eyes, makes his wish and then hurls a cloth at the stone altar. It is a tradition that dates back centuries. In happier times, pilgrims might have wished for luck in marriage or a good harvest, but the curly-haired 14-year-old is praying for his family to be able to return to their home.
They are among tens of thousands of Yazidis who fled their homes in the Sinjar region of northwestern Iraq earlier this month when jihadists stormed the area.
“I came here today to pray for this oppression to end, so that we Yazidis can return home to Sinjar,” the teenager says.
Omar needs the cloth to land on the highest stone of the altar so that his wish can be granted. He aims well and hits his mark.
Lalish lies in the mountains, some 60 km northeast of Iraq’s militant-held second city Mosul, and the surrounding Yazidi towns and villages have so far escaped the attention of the jihadists.
Its temple houses the tomb of the faith’s most revered saint, Sheikh Adi, and every Yazidi is required to make the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime.
As they tour the temple, Omar and his three friends are careful not to step on the stone thresholds that divide its dark chambers.
In one, they lean forward and kiss the black cloth-covered tomb of Sheikh Badr, another Yazidi saint.
They then walk down a stairway that is off-limits to non-Yazidis, where they drink from the water of a holy spring.
In the temple’s main hallway, an elderly woman wearing a loose white headscarf was praying desperately to be able to return to her home.
“Oh Sheikh Adi, please free us, free the people of Sinjar,” she pleaded.
The temple has given sanctuary to both male and female “servants of the faith” who fled the bloody jihadist assault on Sinjar, which has revered temples of its own.
“God willing, we will go home one day, and return to our temples,” said young bearded sheikh, Fadhel Khalaf, nervously clutching his prayer beads.
“We were pushed out of Sinjar, but even if [the jihadists] come here, I would rather die for this temple than leave Iraq,” he said.
Senar Firas, a 20-year-old female temple servant, confidently echoed Khalaf’s words.
“We will go home one day for sure,” she said, explaining that women like her volunteer to work at temples, alongside their normal lives.
“We marry, we go to school.”
In the nearby town of Sheikhan, Yazidi Cultural Center founder Eido Baba Sheikh said the faith is widely misunderstood. Yazidism is monotheistic, he said, while holding the angels in high esteem.
The highest angel is the devil, but they consider it blasphemous to utter his name.
“We believe that all things, good and evil, come from Allah, so we do not think that the chief of the angels can be bad,” he told AFP.
The besuited 57-year-old is the younger brother of Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi faith’s spiritual leader, who is second only to the community’s overall leader, Prince Tahsin Said Bek, who lives in Germany.
Asked about the roots of Yazidism, Eido said there are two main accounts, “one mythological, the other historical.
“The first is that Yazidism has existed since the beginning of time. The second is that it is thousands of years old, preceding Islam,” he said.
Eido said that Sheikh Adi, who lived in the 12th century, revived the Yazidi faith and its rituals.
“It is uncertain where he was from, but some say he was from a village near Baalbek, [in] eastern Lebanon.”
The Yazidi liturgy is in Kurdish but they have no scriptures.
A group of academics at Dohuk University in northern Iraq is working on recording their oral traditions.
Asked how he felt about the mass displacement of Yazidis from Sinjar, Eido he said: “We have suffered many attacks like this before, throughout the centuries.
“Yazidis carry the faith in our hearts. Wherever we are, even if we have to leave Iraq, Yazidism will live on,” he added.