Religion in Iraqi Kurdistan
By: Giustina Selvelli
A mosaic of religious and ethnic minorities make up the population of Iraqi Kurdistan. The autonomous region in northern Iraq has one of the highest densities of cultural and religious/sectarian diversity in all of the Middle East.
The ethnic composition of its nearly 6 million inhabitants is particularly multifaceted, being formed by a Kurdish majority and the considerable ethnic minorities of Arabs, Turkmens/Turkomans, Assyrians, and smaller ones of Armenians, Jews, Circassians (also called Adyghe), Chechens and Roma (also called Domari, Kawliya), etc.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officially recognizes a number of religious communities in the region including; the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Yezidi, Kaka’i, Bahai, Sabean Mandeans, and Zoroastrian faiths - all of which having representatives in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.
Ethnic groups do not forcedly coincide with religious ones: an example for this comes from the main population in the region, the Kurds.
Although the majority belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam, in the course of their history Kurds have come to express different confessional affiliations, such as Shia Islam, Yezidi, Yarsan (Kaka'i), Zoroastrian and in some cases even Christian and Jewish affiliations (especially up until the 1950s).
The area of Iraqi Kurdistan coincides with that of the fertile crescent, a region of historical significance, as it is the place where the three major Abrahamic religions met: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Multiple confessional identities have coexisted for centuries in this area of Mesopotamia, and the recent establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government has also implied the emergence and affirmation of new religious diversity, with minority groups coming to settle in this territory from bordering areas of Iraq and Syria due to wars and persecution.
In this context, in 2017, a directorate for religious communities was inaugurated by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, with the aim of fostering religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence among the inhabitants of this region.
Judaism in Iraqi Kurdistan
For what concerns the Jewish presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, this community represented a very significant part of the region’s history.
Jewish communities were present in the citadel of Erbil, as well as in the Northern town of Zakho (now bordering Turkey), known as “The Jerusalem of Mesopotamia”, where two important synagogues used to exist and whose community spoke Aramaic.
Other Jewish communities also spoke Kurdish dialects, in particular the Kurmanji one. In the 1950s, most Jewish communities emigrated to Israel to start a new life in the young Jewish state.
Nowadays, Kurdish Jews only number some several hundred families (around 700) in this autonomous region of Iraq but nevertheless, they are an officially recognized minority and in 2017 the first public celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover took place in the city of Erbil.
Zoroastrianism in Iraqi Kurdistan
Zoroastrianism is the ancient, pre-Abrahamic monotheistic religion that was followed (together with Mithraism and local pagan beliefs) by the Iranic/Kurdish people in this part of the Middle-East before the advent of Islam in the 8th Century. One of the signs of this cultural legacy can probably be recognized in the ongoing celebration of the Newroz coinciding with the Spring Equinox. T
This religion has recently experienced a revitalization in the Iraqi Kurdistan area, with many Kurds rediscovering the old beliefs, corresponding to the cult of Ahura Mazda/Zarathustra and the veneration of the holy original scripture of Zend Avesta.
In view of this, the Kurdistan Regional Government passed landmark legislation giving official recognition to the Zoroastrian religion within its borders, becoming the first political entity to acknowledge the status of this community in the Middle East in modern times.
The followers of this religion have also asked permission to build up to 12 shrines and as a consequence, the first Zoroastrian temple was opened in the city of Sulaymaniyah in September 2016.
Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan
The Yazidis constitute another spiritual community that has been present in this region since ancestral times.
As a synchretic religion, Yazidism incorporates elements of different faiths, including Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Sufism.
Their followers venerate one God often named Xwedê and the Peacock Angel, viewed as the chief member of the Holy Trinity and thus a manifestation of God. This is the reason why the Peacock is seen and used as the symbol of the Yazidi faith.
As a result of the veneration of the Peacock Angel, as well as the mystery surrounding their faith, in the course of history, and even in recent times, many Muslims and non-Muslims have unjustly come to see the Yazidis as worshippers of the devil, thus persecuting this community in different ways.
During the summer of 2014, many Yazidis found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan after the massacres committed against them by 'The Islamic State (ISIS) on the Sinjar mountains of Iraq.
In the Northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the town of Lalish in the Shekhan Valley north of Mosul, the Yazidi holy sanctuary of Lalişa Nûranî is located, containing the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Mosāfer (Şêx Adî), a central figure for Yazidism.
Yazidis venerate this place as sacred also because of their belief that Noah’s Ark came to rest on this location after the great flood. The shrine is decorated with sun elements and every year, in mid September, it hosts a holy pilgrimage with the arrival of many Yazidi believers.
Christianity in Iraqi Kurdistan
For what concerns the Christian communities in Iraqi Kurdistan, we also find a high diversity of confessional belongings. The vast majority of Christians are autochthonous ethnic Assyrians who speak an Eastern Aramaic dialect written in the Syriac alphabet.
The other (non-Assyrian) communities are composed mainly of Arabs and Armenians, but there is also a very small minority of Kurdish (mentioned in old sources) and Turkoman/Turkmen Christians.
The Christian Assyrian population is mainly divided into the main communities of Chaldeans (Catholic Uniate Church), Syriac Orthodox Christians. A minority belongs to the Assyrian Church of the East and to the Syriac Catholic Church as well.
The Chaldeans (not to be confused with Syriac Catholics) are a religious community part of the Catholic Uniate Church.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the community is mainly present in the cities of Erbil and Zakho, as well as in other smaller towns such as of Alqosh, where the impressive Rabban Hormizd Monastery is located (640 A.D.), carved out in the mountains overlooking the fertile Nineveh Plains.
This Monastery, dating back to 640 A.D., is extremely important for the history of Christians in Iraq.
Recently, with the aim of encouraging its believers to stay in the region, the Chaldean Church re-established its Archdiocese in Ankawa, Erbil, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph (Mar Yousif).
In the same city, the Kurdistan Regional Government has put at the community’s disposal, a plot of land to be used for the erection of a Chaldean Church, together with one in the city of Dahuk for the same purpose.
Syriac Orthodox Church
The Syriac Orthodox Christians belong to the an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox Church and refer to the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Damascus.
The roots of this community can be traced back to the very inception of Christianity, their liturgy being one of the most ancient, and their spiritual heritage constituting one of the salient Christian elements in the area.
One famous Syriac orthodox cultural monument is the Mar Mattai monastery, located on the top of Mount Alfat in northern Iraqi Kurdistan, founded in 363 A.D.
Notwithstanding the process of emigration abroad, this community is still a lively one in the region and in January 2019, a new Archdiocese Residence of the Syriac Orthodox Church was opened in Erbil’s (mainly Assyrian) Ankawa quarter.
In this same neighbourhood, the headquarters of the Assyrian Church of the East, deriving from the Nestorian Church is located, which differs from the Syriac Orthodox one.
Armenians in Iraqi Kurdistan
The Armenians in Iraqi Kurdistan are followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and represent of the most ancient Christian communities inhabiting the Middle East.
Many of the Armenians in the region are descendants of the survivors of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Ottoman authorities, who arrived from the Ottoman Empire between the years 1915-1923, especially in the city of Zakho.
In the last years, more Armenians from Iraq have reached the region, considered much safer to live in.
Armenians in Iraqi Kurdistan benefit from one reserved minority seat in the parliament. There are two Armenian schools in the region, one in Erbil and the other in Dohuk.
Furthermore, the community has churches in Erbil, Avzrog, Sulaymaniyah, Havresk and Zakho, and in Dohuk, at least 3 of them having been built in the last 20 years.
There is also a small fraction of Catholic Armenians living in the region, and an even smaller community of Evangelic Armenians.
A tiny ethno-religious community of Sabean Mandeans exists within the semi-autonomous region. The Sabean Mandeans, speakers of an Eastern Aramaic variant called Mandaic language, are one of the native peoples of Mestopotamia, and their roots go back to the ancient Aramaic population.
Their religion is a form of Gnosticism, descended from ancient Mesopotamian worship, with rituals that share traits with followers of the Zoroastrian and Nestorian faiths.
In this highly dualistic sect, that sees John the Baptist as the central prophet (whose writings are expressed in the Mandean holy book Draša D-Iahia), water represents a divine life force and is central to their rituals.
One of their scriptures, Ginza Rba (“The Holy Treasure”) describes the element of light fighting against the forces of darkness or evil.
Many followers of Mandaeism started arriving in the Iraqi Kurdistan region from 2003, after having been displaced from Iraq, especially to the cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan
Islam is the most widespread religion in Iraqi Kurdistan, with over 5000 mosques being found in the region, including very old ones such as the Great Mosque of Aqrah. The majority of Muslim people (mainly Kurds and Arabs) in Iraqi Kurdistan are Sunni.
Contrarily to their Arab and Turkish neighbours who are usually Hanafi, the Sunni Kurds follow the Shafi‘i school of thought.
A minority of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Muslim communities (Arabs, Turkomans and Faili Kurds) are Shia.
Furthermore, several heterodox groups and sects linked to Islam are present in the region, including the Alevis, the Yarsanis (or Kakai’s), the Shabaks and Bahais.
Most of these syncretic communities present a hereditary class of religious specialists of different ranks, similarly to the orthodox Sufi orders or tariqats. Their religious beliefs and practices are derived from a combination of heterodox Islam and pre-Islamic elements.
The Alevis, also sometimes called Qizilbash, are the “devotees of Ali." Similarly to Sufis, they claim that the Quran is characterized by both an open and a hidden meaning.
Some of the features of their faith include the observance of the Ten Days of Muharram (commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn) and the fact that they do not have mosques.
The Yarsanis (also called Kakai’s), are the followers of a threatened monotheistic sect called Ahl-e Haqq (“People of the Truth”), founded in the 14th Century in Western Iran by Sultan Suhak, whose philosophy is closely related to the Alevi one.
The Kalam-e Saranjam (“The Discourse of Conclusion”), written in the Gorani language, is considered to be the most historical text about this community, appearing in the form of poetry.
Yarsanis believe in metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul after death. An important religious celebration of Yarsanism is the Pomegranate Festival (Ayinê Yari), held at the end of October, marking the heart of the Autumn season.
The Shabaks are ethnic Kurds and, similarly to the Yarsanis, share common elements with Alevism. Their spiritual beliefs combine traits of Sufism, Yazidism and even Christianity with a particular interpretation of divine reality.
The Kitab al-Manaqib (“Book of Exemplary Acts”) or Buyuruq, written in a Turkoman language variant, is their main scripture.
Bahai's in Iraqi Kurdistan
The Bahai's are followers of a monotheistic religion founded in 1819 in the city of Shiraz in Persia by “the Bab”, born as Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad.
In recent years, many of them settled in the northern region of Kurdistan from Iraq, especially in the city of Sulaymaniah, looking for security and social stability.
Many of these religious group have suck refuge from persecution in Iraq in the more secure region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Atheism in Iraqi Kurdistan
In addition, atheism in Iraqi Kurdistan has become a growing trend as its social and legal systems have allowed for the protection of all groups - unlike in neighboring Iraq and the surrounding regions. Although statistics on atheism in the region is limited.
See the article “Religion in Kurdistan” by Martin van Bruinessen, in: Kurdish Times, Vol. 4, n.1-2 (1991), pp. 5-27.
See the book The Jews of Kurdistan by Erich Brauer, Wayne State University Press, 1993.
See “Neo-Aramaic Proverbs of the Jews of Zakho” by J. B. Segal, in: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct., 1955), pp. 251-270.
See the book Unwitting Zionists: The Jewish Community of Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan by Haya Gavish, Wayne State University Press, 2009.
See the article “The ‘Original’ Kurdish Religion? Kurdish Nationalism and the False Conflation of the Yezidi and Zoroastrian Traditions” by Richard Foltz, in: Journal of Persianate Studies, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2017, pp. 87-106.
See the article “Assyrians in Iraq” by Vahram Petrosian, in: Iran & the Caucasus, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2006), pp. 113-147.
See the article “A Remnant Remaining: Armenians amid Northern Iraq's Christian Minority” by Darren L. Logan, in: Iran & the Caucasus, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2010), pp. 143-157.
See the Policy Paper “The Sabean-Mandaeans. Perceptions of Reconciliation and Conflict” published byDave van Zoonen and Khogir Wirya, Middle East Research Institute, Erbil, 2017.
See the article “A Kızılbash Community in Iraqi Kurdistan : The Shabak” by Martin van Bruinessen, in: Les annales de l'autre Islam 5 (1998), pp. 185-96.