Bridging interfaith animosity and the pain of war

International Day of Peace in Kurdistan, Iraq

by Peggy Gish

[Note: The following has been adapted for CPTnet.  The original is available on Gish’s blog.

Three of our team walked into the gathering of about a hundred Kurdish peace and justice activists at the Cultural Café, in Suleimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, to celebrate the International Day of Peace.  Immediately, Nyan Mohammad, a teacher at the Arbat School, waved for us to come to sit at her table.  There, four displaced Ezidis (often called Yazidis) we had met before stood up and warmly greeted us.  Nyan, who is Muslim, made a special trip to the tent camp for displaced persons this afternoon to pick up this group and bring them to this event, which focused on building peace among religious groups

Hosting this event was a Kurdish women’s organization, called the Ashti Group.  The speakers included persons from four religious groups among Iraqi Kurds— An Ezidi, a member of the Kaka’i, (a Kurdish minority religion), a Muslim, and a Christian.  They each urged us not to judge people from other religions, but to live together in tolerance and harmony.  Their message was not theoretical but spoke to a real need of a society racked with ethnic violence.

Interfaith speakers

Most interesting to me were things that the Ezidi speaker said.  First, he clarified that they call themselves “Ezidi” which implies that they believe in God, rather than the name, “Yazidi,” a derogatory

name that implies that they are non-believers or believe in the devil.  Then he spoke about the Ezidi women and girls captured by ISIS.  Since it is a custom in the Ezidi religion (as well as in some other Middle Eastern communities) to see a sexual assault as an act that shames and dishonors the family,  sometimes a male member of the family views it as a duty to kill the woman, to remove the shame (called an “honor killing”).  According to the speaker, however, Ezidi leaders have just made a statement that the women and girls did not choose to be sexually assaulted, so they should not be killed.  He said that several of them have escaped their families and have welcomed them when they returned home.

Then there was a time for participants to offer questions and statements.  Several expressed frustration about religions fighting wars in the name of their God, and decried the violence perpetrated by religious groups against women.  One person asked, “Why is it that it is mostly women who speak out and work for peace?”

Then Nyan stood up and went to the microphone.  She spoke boldly, but warmly, saying, “We were glad when people cared about the Ezidi, Muslim, and Shabak families camping at our school, and came to learn about what they had gone through and about their current living conditions.  I am thankful to say that our table demonstrates what we have all been talking about—what we are striving for tonight.  We are Muslim, Ezidi, and Christian, sitting together in peace!”

Once more, I knew why I had returned to Iraqi Kurdistan this summer.  As we exchanged farewell greetings with the people at our table, I was amazed and touched by the love I had received from people who had just experienced horror and loss.  They are among the hundreds of thousands of families in Iraq and Syria uprooted from all that gave them identity and stability.  I was also moved by the love and care that people of all faiths had shown to the displaced, giving what they could to ease their way.

Far right: Kurdish team colleague Parween Aziz, next to her, Peggy Gish.  Second from left, Nyan Mohammad, plus four Ezidi friends

It was one of those moments that made the suffering of so many people, caused by my country’s thirst for oil and for global power, very real.  I see no good outcome ahead to the tragedy and the pain these people are enduring, but they are walking ahead with resilience and grace.