A gleaming white structure topped with seven domes, set to be the world’s biggest Yazidi temple, is being built in a tiny village in Armenia.
Long persecuted, most recently by Islamic jihadists in Iraq, the Kurdish-speaking, religious minority hopes the new temple will prove a symbol of strength as it tries to preserve its unique blend of faiths.
Yazidis, adherents of an ancient religion rooted in Zoroastrianism, number around 35,000 in Armenia today but currently have just one tiny temple in the Caucasus country.
The new edifice, called Quba Mere Diwane, is being constructed in Aknalich, a village 35 kilometres (22 miles) from the capital, Yerevan, thanks to funding by a wealthy Moscow-based Yazidi businessman Mirza Sloyan, who was born nearby.
Aknalich is home to 150 Yazidis, as well as the existing temple, built in 2012 which only holds up to 30 people.
Created from granite and marble, the new 25-metre-high (82-foot) structure will include a large prayer hall, religious school and museum. Its seven domes represent seven angels revered by the Yazidis.
‘Glimmer of hope’
Of the world’s 1.5 million Yazidis, the largest community is in Iraq where they have long been one of the country’s most vulnerable minorities. Persecution by Saddam Hussein forced thousands of families to flee.
In August 2014, Yazidis were brutally targeted by Islamic State jihadists when their bastion Sinjar in northwestern Iraq was seized. They suffered crimes which the United Nations has described as genocide.
“We suffered terrible losses in Sinjar and are extremely depressed, but this temple gives us a glimmer of hope for revival,” said Sheikh Hasan Hasanyan, the spiritual leader of the Armenian Yazidis.
“If we can build such a splendid temple, that means Yazidis withstood, they didn’t give up,” he told AFP by telephone.
An old prayer
The ex-Soviet country’s largest minority group, Yazidis are well integrated into Armenian society, enjoy freedom of religious belief, and publish Yazidi-language newspapers and textbooks.
But widespread poverty and unemployment have sent a wave of migrants to Europe, Russia and the United States in search of work.
“I hope that the new temple will motivate my children — who are living in Europe — to come back to Aknalich, remind them that they are Yazidis,” said local resident Misha Davrshyan.
Yazidis worship one God, who, they believe, created the world and entrusted it to seven Holy Beings, the most important of which is Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel.
Their unique beliefs — which over time integrated elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — have often been misconstrued as satanic.
Orthodox Muslims consider the peacock a demon figure and refer to Yazidis as devil-worshippers.
Fearing assimilation, Yazidis discourage marriage outside the community and even across their caste system, and strictly follow traditional customs — some refrain from eating lettuce or wearing the colour blue.
“We have no state and, as a vulnerable minority, we risk imminent assimilation if we stop protecting our traditions,” said Hasanyan.
He said he hoped that the new temple, expected to open this year, “will become a major spiritual centre for Yazidi pilgrims from all over the world.”
“There is an old Yazidi prayer asking God to give peace and happiness first to the world’s other nations and then to our tormented people,” he said.
“That’s what we will be praying for in the new temple.”