VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis will be the first pontiff in history to pray with members of a syncretistic sect who worship a "fallen angel" depicted as a peacock and identified with the Devil.
The Yezedis — persecuted to the point of genocide by the Islamic State (ISIS) as "Devil worshippers" — will participate in the pope's Saturday interreligious service in Ur with Muslims, Mandaean-Sabeans and members of Iraq's other religious communities.
While the mainstream media and some religious scholars vigorously reject the "sensational epithet" of "Devil worshippers" as a "term used both by unsympathetic neighbors and fascinated westerners," recent scholarship explains how the Yezedi deity — the Peacock Angel — simultaneously embodies "both god and demon."
Yezedism blends elements of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, Christianity, Sufism and Islam, adopting a "holy trinity" comprising of the Peacock Angel, Sheikh 'Adi (founder of the proto-Yezidi religion) and Sultan Yezed or Êzî (the Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Mu'awiya).
The Peacock Angel (Malak-Tāwūs) is the chief deity of the Yezedi holy trinity, while 'Adi and Êzî are deified versions of their historical counterparts. On the one hand, the peacock symbolizes grandeur and magnificence, but it conjures pride and passion on the other. This makes it a fitting embodiment of both god and demon at the same time.
Iranian-born Armenian Prof. Garnik S. Asatrian from Yerevan State University and Prof. Victoria A. Arakelova from the RAU Institute of Oriental Studies, Armenia, agree that Yezedis have been persecuted "as pagans, heretics or Devil-worshippers" because of their "religious idiosyncrasy."
However, in their monograph The Religion of the Peacock Angel: The Yezidis and Their Spirit World, Asatrian and Arakelova argue that Yezedism is "monotheistic," despite the "minor deities of the Yezedi pantheon" (including spirits and demons) because its "component deities" are "unambiguous manifestations of the one god worshipped by adherents."
The Armenian scholars explain how Yezedis regard Malak-Tāwūs — a sort of demiurge Peacock Angel — as "the fallen angel expelled from paradise for disobedience to the will of god," as in the biblical and Islamic traditions.
In Yezedism, however, Satan as the angelic head is only "temporarily overthrown as a punishment, but, in time, becomes a recipient of mercy," and, in Yezedi mysticism, Satan is "eventually exonerated or his deed not regarded as sin in any way," they stress.
The esoteric Yezedis, like Sufis, "accept evil as one of the necessary principles of creation, 'unjustifiably' condemned by the dogmatic religions, without which it is impossible to comprehend the source of energy per se," Asatrian and Arakelova explain.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Rome-based Eastern Catholic scholar of oriental studies told Church Militant he regarded the "papal interreligious service as an abomination and a scandal to persecuted Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Iraq."
Lamenting that "the West stood silent while countless Yezedi women were raped and held as sex slaves," the scholar nevertheless agreed that "political correctness in the academy and the genocide against Yezedis prevents the truth from being told about the 'demonic' aspects of Yezedism."
"Scholars of the ancient Near East recognize that one community's demon is another community's deity," the academic remarked, holding up a copy of the magisterial Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD).
"On a purely academic level, the biblical figure of Satan is regarded as a development from that of a public prosecutor in the book of Job to a full-fledged evil entity Jesus confronts in the gospels," the scholar observed.
"Not until post-exilic times in intertestamental literature, with the rise of dualism and the concept of the Devil, did the word begin to display the meaning 'evil demon in league with the Devil' and take on an entirely negative connotation," he noted, quoting from the DDD.
He added that a major obstacle in deciphering Yezedi beliefs is that the so-called holy books of the Yezedis — Kitēbā Jalwa (Book of Revelation) and Mashafē Raš (Black Book) — are considered late forgeries, "although still definitely reflecting the genuine religious and folk tradition."
According to the Black Book, Malak-Tāwūs has seven "avatars" as angels who assist and accompany him: Azrail, Dardail, Israfil, Mikail, Jabrail, Shamnail and Turail.
A Yezedi legend describes the fall of Malak-Tāwūs ("that particle of endless light") in a manner resembling the casting out of Lucifer from Heaven. While most people spat on, jeered and beat the fallen angel, the Yezedis — "kind people, pure in heart" — "recognized and welcomed" Malak-Tāwūs, fearing not what God or other people would say.
One version of the legend, narrated to British intelligence officer Edward Soane by Yezedis in Tiflis, has Satan "reinstated in Heaven" after "weeping sufficient tears in seven vessels to quench the seven hells of his 7,000 years' exile."
"In any case, the mythological concept of the expelled deity, the fallen angel, having deep roots in the Near Eastern traditions, is particularly brightly manifested in Islamic mysticism," Asatrian and Arakelova argue, defending the role of Malak-Tāwūs in Yezedism.
For Yezedis, even uttering the word "Satan" (šayṭān) is taboo. Words sounding similar to šayṭān like šatt (estuary) and qaytān are substituted by synonyms as the Black Scripture instructs: "Neither is it permitted to us to pronounce the name of Satan (because it is the name of our god), nor any name resembling this, such as Kitan, Sharr, Shatt."
"Looking at the relevant literature, I don't have a problem, as an academic, concluding that Yezedis are demon worshippers," the oriental studies scholar told Church Militant, adding, "As a Catholic who believes in ... Holy Scripture, I am reminded of the Septuagint version of Psalm 96:5, which says that 'all the gods of the nations are demons' and St. Paul's warning to the Corinthians: 'What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.'"