Iraqi Yazidis are healing from the pain and hardship they suffered at the hands of the Islamic State, which swept their areas, killing men and forcing women into sexual slavery for over 2½ years.
In a sign of the return to normal life, the Yazidi New Year was celebrated in a Yazidi temple April 8 for the first time since the liberation from IS.
The celebration involves many Yazidi traditions and customs that characterize their heritage and history. They ceremonially cut firewood and press olives to extract oil to light the lanterns of the temple in Lalish for the entire year.
The distinctive domed temple sits at the foot of a mountainous area northwest of Mosul in Ninevah province, in a dense forest of olive and other trees. Cutting the local wood and pressing the olives are part of a sacred Yazidi religious duty.
Researcher Ahmed Shingaly, who participated in the ceremony, told Al-Monitor, “This is their ancestral homeland. The temple was built to bring together Yazidis from around the world to practice their religious rites. It is not about the edifice alone but about the land that was planted with olive trees, which are never cut. The new generation is invested in growing and taking care of more olive trees.”
However, Shingaly felt a deep sadness from some of the worshipers despite the large turnout. He said, “Thousands of Yazidis, mainly children and women, are still unaccounted for,” in reference to the more than 3,200 women and children that are still held captive by IS, which deems them infidels.
The temple of Lalish is the only temple to which Yazidis from around the world make pilgrimage. Shankali said, “Visitors have to take off their shoes and walk around the temple in sincere contemplation so that their prayers are heard and answered.”
Yazidi writer Akram Darwish, who also attended the ceremony, gave Al-Monitor a detailed account of the annual ritual. He said, “Once summer is over, olives are ripe and ready to be picked from the trees in the large valley near the temple. The olives are then stored inside large storehouses in the temple, as has been the custom for many years.”
Darwish went on, “With the beginning of spring, the olives are taken out of storage and are pressed during a celebration of thousands of Yazidis, who consider it a religious duty. The extracted oil is used to light 500 lanterns in the temple every day before sunset.”
He said that the Yazidis also gather wood and cut down trees for three days. «But they make sure not to cut down saplings or green trees or harm the forest.”
Yazidis are expected to make at least one pilgrimage to the Lalish temple in their lifetimes. Yazidis who live in the area visit it all year round.
Saman Daoud, a Yazidi journalist based in Germany, told Al-Monitor, “There is an urgent need, more than ever before, for this annual religious celebration and the participation of Yazidis from around the world. I was there for this year’s celebration along with hundreds who came from Europe, Australia and the United States to visit the temple.”
Daoud’s statements echo a report by the British Daily Telegraph on June 2, 2017, that said number of visitors to the temple had reached 1,000 people every Friday.
Daoud spoke about another Yazidi tradition, saying, “Pilgrims wrap a piece of cloth on the temple column, praying to God to answer their prayers.” They leave thousands of pieces of worn-out cloth wrapped in place.
As Yazidis resume their normal lives after the great tragedies they have suffered at the hands of IS and some of the residents of nearby villages who collaborated with the organization, some of the worshipers renewed calls for a secure future through international protection and declare the massacres of their people ethnic cleansing at The Hague.
Muslim religious institutions such as the Sunni Endowment are reassuring Yazidis that they recognize the tragedies and crimes they have suffered. Eskandar Watout, a member of the parliamentary security committee, told Al-Monitor, “This has now become a part of the past. Today, the security forces are capable of fully protecting minorities, including Yazidis. IS has been defeated and will never return to Iraq.”