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Armenia's Peacock People
April 26, 2017 09:54 GMT
As the world's largest Yazidi temple begins to take shape in Armenia, the country's Yazidis see a historic shift coming for their embattled religion.
Sheikh Aziz, a senior spiritual leader for Armenian Yazidis, kisses a tiny brass peacock in deference to Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, which is the central figure in the Yazidi faith.
This reverence for Melek Taus, a headstrong angel who was said to have refused to bend to the will of God, has led to the Yazidis being labeled "devil worshipers" by conservative Muslims. The story of the Peacock Angel, cast down into hell for defying God, mirrors the Koran's account of Shaytan, the Devil.
Armenian Yazidi women pay their respects to the Peacock Angel inside a temple in Aknalich, near Yerevan. For Yazidis, Melek Taus is above the concepts of good and evil -- comparable to fire, which can cook and warm but also burn and destroy.
Yazidi men kiss the hand of Sheikh Aziz. Yazidis don't eat pork or lettuce, and face the sun to pray three times a day, beginning with a prayer for other nations of the world. A local Yazidi explained this aspect of their prayer to RFE/RL: "We think if other people are happy, we will be too."
A sculpture representing the friendship between Yazidis and Christians in Armenia. There are around 35,000 Yazidis in the country, making them Armenia's largest ethnic minority.
Most of the Yazidis of Armenia arrived with the wave of refugees who fled the massacres carried out by Ottoman Turks in 1915-23. More than 1 million people, mostly ethnic Armenians but including other non-Muslim minorities within the Ottoman Empire, died in those mass killings.
The Yazidi people were targeted by the militant group Islamic State (IS) beginning in the summer of 2014, when IS swept into swaths of Iraq and Syria. Unlike Christians, many of whom were killed but some of whom were said to have been allowed to pay a religious tax without conversion, Yazidis were given two choices: Convert or die. IS militants have since massacred more than 5,000 Yazidis, and thousands of Yazidi girls and women remain captive as sex slaves.
Far from the turmoil of the Middle East is the quiet main street of Aknalich, Armenia. In this scruffy village 35 kilometers from Yerevan, a story of hope is unfolding that has historic implications for the Yazidi faith.
Aknalich is home to a small temple (right), which was completed in 2012, but a few meters away, the world's largest Yazidi temple is taking shape. The new edifice, carved from Iranian marble, is scheduled for completion in late 2018.
A team of around 11 stonemasons and builders works six days a week on the temple. In a rare interview, the man behind the project spoke frankly to RFE/RL about why he is sinking $4.5 million of his own money into the temple.
Mirza Sloian, a Yazidi businessman who owns a shopping center in Moscow, was born near Aknalich, and has paid for the entire Yazidi complex in the village. "The future for us is in Armenia.... Wherever there is a mosque, there is no place for Yazidis. We are here in a safe country, a Christian country, and that is our greatest happiness."
The Yazidis' peacock standard being displayed during the Sere Sal festival in Aknalich. RFE/RL met Yazidis from Iraq, Kazakhstan, and Russia who had traveled to attend the ceremony.
Armenian Yazidis at a ceremonial feast during the Sere Sal celebrations. Professor Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidi culture, told RFE/RL by telephone there has been a hardening of attitudes toward Islam within the Yazidi faith: "After the genocide of 2014, everybody who had said they couldn't live with Muslims would have been proven right."
A Yazidi musician during the Sere Sal celebrations in Aknalich. Hopes that the village might become a new heartland for the Yazidi faith are unlikely to be realized anytime soon.
An Armenian shepherd boy leads his flock to stable in Aknalich. Two Yazidi families from Iraq had attempted to settle in Aknalich after fleeing territory controlled by IS, but left recently for Germany. Locals RFE/RL spoke to cited a language barrier as the reason for their departure.
But whether or not the construction in Aknalich will signal a pivot from the Middle East to Armenia, the pictures and T-shirts featuring this image of the future temple suggest that, at the very least, it will be a source of immense pride for Yazidis around the world.
Amos Chapple is a New Zealand photojournalist with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R.
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