Nathan Mauger was raised in Spokane and studied journalism at Washington State University. As a freelance journalist he has reported from the United States, China, Palestine, and Iraq. He was jailed for a month in Israel in 2002 for delivering food and medical supplies to Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. After being released, he went to work for Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based campaign to end the sanctions on Iraq, and traveled to Iraq in September, staying for two months.
Regarding this article, he writes: “I wrote this shortly before leaving Iraq. The conditions there, especially for children, are terrible. Everything I’d written was about sanctions and war, depleted uranium and dead babies, and I wanted to write something more lighthearted. What happened that day was mostly because of a government minder named Zeit who held some stereotypes, and the [Christian Peacemaker Team] people generally aren’t as grumpy as they might seem reading this. When I think about the human cost of war on Iraq, I always think of the people I met in Iraq, including Zeit. This story doesn’t do him justice; he was a very sincere man and extremely funny. He lives in Baghdad and has two kids. When CNN starts showing missiles tipped with depleted uranium hitting Baghdad, I’m going to be thinking about him.”
I’m walking along the banks of the Tigris River in Mosul when I first hear about them. “Tomorrow, we will meet the people who are worshipping the Satan,” says Zeit, our government minder.
“There are people in Iraq who worship Satan?” I ask, surprised.
Zeit says there are indeed. In the van, he clarifies the subject further–there are people in Iraq who worship the devil.
I am in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul, population 2.5 million, tagging along with seven elderly members of Christian Peacemaker Team. The trip has so far been a bust, and our time has been split between not being allowed out of the hotel and not being allowed out of the van.
At lunch Zeit announces to the entire group what we’ll be doing tomorrow: going to meet devil-worshipping Iraqis “for a picnic.” Zeit is both excited and apprehensive about taking us to see the Iraqi Satanists, also known as Yzidians. He says they carry small knives and are “very dangerous.” The local man who is our guide is also nervous. The Christian Peacemakers, most of whom are in their late-60s or early 70s, are less than thrilled.
“We’d hoped we would be able to meet some elderly people,” Anne Herman, 69, says.
“The devil’s been around a long time,” I say.
The Iraqi Yzidians met with Saddam Hussein on television several weeks earlier. This was an extremely risky endorsement for the Iraqi president to seek. George W. Bush has vowed to “rout out” the “evildoers” worldwide, and the Iraqi government drawing support from domestic devil-worshippers would seem to invite further bombing.
Zeit and the guide from Mosul solemnly explain to us that the Yzidians pray to the peacock. But a peacock is just a bird, I say. Zeit is annoyed. “Everybody knows the peacock is coming from the devil,” he says, shaking his head dismissively. “The peacock is the symbol of the devil.”
The Mosul guide tells us there are followers of Yzidia in not only Iraq, but also Iran, Turkey, Syria, and … Germany. They sacrifice animals.
“Like chickens?” I ask.
Zeit thinks for a moment. “Yes.”
The Yzidians of Mosul do this outside the city limits, in a town called Bashika.
“Is this what you want us to tell the American people?” asks Bill Rose, a retired postal worker. “This story?”
“This is not story. This is some kind of facts,” Zeit says.
In the van, I’m growing more and more excited about tomorrow’s trip to see the Iraqi Satanists. Sitting next to me is Joe Heckel, a 77-year-old Presbyterian clergyman.
“Joe, tomorrow we’re going to see the devil—worshippers of Iraq,” I say. “You’re a Christian Peacemaker. How do you feel about this?”
Joe shoots me a sideways glance. “Disinterested,” he says.
“Do you see any possible source of conflict?”
“Conflict with what?”
“With the devil-worshippers.”
“No. I’d like to talk to some Christians.”
Kathleen Kampmann, a 63-year-old Roman Catholic, is sitting on my other side. I ask her, “Are you excited to see the Iraqi Satanists tomorrow?”
“I was actually not interested,” she says.
I can only find one other person in the van interested in meeting the Satanists—Sister Anne Montgomery, a Catholic nun. Sister Anne, 76, has seen the dark side of faith in Iraq before. (Iraq is a secular state with religious pluralism.) I like Anne—she once dove into a river and swam upstream with a sledgehammer to bang on a US Trident submarine.
Years ago, Sister Anne was in Baghdad with a group called Medicine for Peace, helping to organize and fund operations for Iraqi children outside the country. The family of one of the children took Sister Anne out to dinner as a thank-you after a successful operation, which was followed by a trip to a local church holding a Darwish ceremony. During the ceremony, men stuck knives through their bodies.
“They really know human anatomy,” Sister Anne says. “They actually put knives through themselves and they never touch a vital organ.”
Sister Anne and I keep talking about the Darwish, Iraq and Satan. The mood in the van is tense; the other Christian Peacemakers aren’t happy about tomorrow’s itinerary. Then it strikes me that seeing the Satanists tomorrow is entirely appropriate; today is October 30.
“Tomorrow’s Halloween,” I say. “We’re going to meet the Iraqi devil-worshippers on Halloween!”
The next morning—Halloween morning, that is—Zeit takes us to a hospital to see the conditions. The Christian Peacekeepers are grumbling about going to see the Yzidians in Bashika and starting to come up with alternate plans.
Zeit takes me aside. He’s excited about going to Bashika. I tell him the Christian Peacemakers don’t want to go. In a low voice, Zeit says we can decide what to do today in a democratic way, “or I can order them to go.”
“Order them,” I whisper.
When we’re done meeting with doctors and patients in the hospital, Zeit tells us to get in the van because we’re going to Bashika. “To see the devil-worshippers,” he announces.
Bashika is thirty minutes outside of Mosul. About three hundred families live in the town. Half are Arab and half are Kurdish, but not all of them worship Satan; there are also Muslim and Christian communities.
As we drive into Bashika, Zeit points out some pointy structures on the top of a hill. Those are Yzidian temples, he says.
The Christian Peacemakers are silent. The night before, I think I helped put them somewhat at ease when I asked Zeit if the devil-worshippers would kill us and eat us, and Zeit assured us they wouldn’t. Several of the Christians exchanged looks after this, relieved. But then I asked Zeit if he carried a gun, and he said he didn’t. This disturbing fact is no doubt on the Christian Peacemaker’s minds as we enter Bashika.
One of the peacemakers carries a cane, but it is not a sword-cane and will do little good against the Satanists, should it come down to that. What will probably be of more use is the crucifix hanging around Sister Anne’s neck.
The land around the town is rural. We pull up to a temple on the edge of Bashika. As we get out of the van (a process that takes about four minutes), Zeit tells us not to use words like “Satan” and “devil” when we’re talking with the Yzidians. They could become angry, he tells us. Zeit is visibly nervous.
We meet Ibrahim, who is in charge of the temple. He is portly and of average height, and he wears a kiffa around his head. (To hide horns?)
Zeit talks to Ibrahim as we’re led into an open-air stone courtyard. The Christian Peacemakers, Zeit and I form a half-circle
around Ibrahim, who does not speak English. Zeit looks at me expectantly.
“We’re familiar with Christianity and Islam, but don’t know anything about the, uh, other religion,” I say. “Can he talk about it?”
“They love each other and make peace with each other and make peace in the world,” Zeit translates. “There is no difference between the religions.”
Zeit is giving me “looks” as he says this, raising his eyebrows up and down and making little nods toward the Yzidian next to him.
Ibrahim says Yzidians worship the sun, which is the eye of God.
“Do they have some literature?” Bill asks. “A book of prayers?”
Zeit and I glance at each other. Does Bill want to convert?
Ibrahim says Yzidians light candles that burn olive oil for the angels twice a week. Moreover, the peacock-angel founded the religion in 3000 B.C. “He was the headmaster of the religion–you get me?” Zeit says, his eyebrows going up and down.
More questions and answers follow, with both sides purposely avoiding words like Hell and Lucifer.
Ibrahim takes us over to the tomb of someone named Mr. Uday, who wrote a text that is holy in Yzidia. I take off my shoes and go inside. The doorway is only about three-feet high and leads into a small stone room with a high ceiling. A trunk-sized coffin with a cloth draped over it stands against the far wall. Mr. Uday must not have been very tall.
As we leave the church I’m disappointed; I’d hoped to see orgies and ritual sacrifice. But now I’m questioning whether or not Yzidia is actually a Satanic religion.
Zeit assures me the peacock-angel is really the devil. I ask him if he felt anything when he went inside the church.
“Yes,” he says, closing his eyes and bowing his head slightly.
In the van, I’m almost convinced that Yzidians don’t really worship the devil, that they’re just a pre-Christianity religion without a relationship to Satan.
But then, as we drive by the farms outside of Bashika, on our way back to Mosul, we see them.
Kathleen suddenly points out of her window at one of the farms. “Look,” she says. “There are peacocks. Amongst the chickens.”