The quest for identity: How Kurds are rediscovering Zoroastrianism
On a bright winter day, as the sun shines with all its might above the countryside outside Sulaimania, a congregation of Zoroastrians gathers at the Qaz Qapan cave, near the village of Zahrzi.
It is a special day for this small community of believers that follows the principles of the prophet Zarathustra. Among them stands a newcomer that has decided to embrace this pre-Abrahamic monotheistic religion. The crowd makes its way up the stairs to reach a cavity that was carved some ten metres high in the cliff, in which is believed to be the tomb of an ancient Zoroastrian lord.
Starting the ritual, the high priest and his assistants engage in a psalmody of sacred chants accompanied by musicians. He begins reciting quotes of the Zend Avesta, the holy Zoroastrian original scripture.
Saman, the newcomer, raises his hand and repeats the words the high priest says to him in Kurdish with a grave intensity. After a few exchanges, Saman has become a Zoroastrian.
"It is one of the most beautiful moments in my life," he will later tell us.
|Under the Baath regime, we could not even request to practice our religion since it was not recognised. We would have faced grave reprisals from the government|
The trend of conversion has been noted in recent years in Iraqi Kurdistan, notably since the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) passed landmark legislation officially recognising the Zoroastrian religion within its borders, being the first political entity to recognize this minority in the Middle East in ages.
"Under the Baath regime, we could not even request to practice our religion since it was not recognised. We would have faced grave reprisals from the government," says Awat Tayib, the chief of the followers of the Zoroastrians in the Kurdistan region.
"Our religion survived in hiding. Many worshippers secretly passed down the knowledge of their faith to their descendants throughout generations," she adds. Even so, the Zoroastrian clergy that formed when the KRG was first established attended theological study in Europe in order to fully master the precepts of the Zoroastrian faith.
"We are getting more and more requests for conversion every month," says Awat. Some Kurds are returning to this religion - said to be the ancestral religion of the Kurds - after their forefathers embraced Islam. Most of those who convert are leaving Islam.
"I never really felt that Islam was my religion," explains Saman, adding: "I had heard about Zoroastrianism from elders in my village and around. They claimed that people in Kurdistan and Iran were almost all Zoroastrians centuries ago, but that the expansion of Islam eradicated most of the Zoroastrians or caused massive conversions."
Despite its recent official recognition, Zoroastrianism is still far from the mainstream here.
"Look at my friend and I, for example, we have unconventional ideas about society, but we dare not speak them in front of our community. Even in my family, I am facing criticism for my religious tendency," concludes Saman.
|I sell fish. When I posted things on social media about Zoroastrianism, I noticed some people started coming less and less to buy it from me|
Awat confirms it is hard for Zoroastrianism to be accepted by everyone in the KRG: "We face continuous discrimination and threats, including death threats. My Facebook account was hacked last week, she says, and my husband, being a high official in the PUK party, has to be accompanied by a bodyguard at all time."
Saman also claims that expressing his religious tendencies has a negative impact on his business. "I sell fish. When I posted things on social media about Zoroastrianism, I noticed some people started coming less and less to buy it from me."
Although some might deny it, the trend of Kurds converting from Islam to Zoroastrianism is a quest for identity. "The Kurdish people that convert often do not feel Islam represent their core values," says Assos Hardi, a Kurdish journalist based in Sulaimania.
|If all Kurds convert back to Zoroastrianism, we will have more independence and we will be stronger|
"This switch is more about identity than it is about religion," he says. Indeed, many Zoroastrians, although they insist on the primacy of tolerance and acceptance of others as the basis of their philosophy, are at the same time adamant to distance themselves from Muslims - and especially from Arabs.
"If all Kurds convert back to Zoroastrianism, we will have more independence and we will be stronger," says Hardi. "We will use our land and country in a better way. I think that if all the Kurds go back to their ancestors' religion, the Arabs will need us and not the other way around."
The Zoroastrian renaissance is part of the rise of the Kurdish identity, especially in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where it has been able to thrive thanks to decentralised government policies enshrined in the 2005 constitution, guaranteeing unprecedented cultural, political and economic rights to the Kurdish autonomous region.
Nevertheless, it has not prevented the Kurds from engaging in a power struggle with the central government in Baghdad, trying to take hold of contested territories beyond the region's constitutional borders. It is in this light that the conversion of many Kurds has to be seen - as a move to further differentiate themselves from their neighbours with whom they share a bitter history from the Saddam era marked by massacres, blockade-caused famine and systematic discrimination.
Islam is still by far the main religion in Kurdistan and will probably remain so for decades.
In Sulaimania, where their first temple was established in 2015 after the new law recognising Zoroastrianism was passed, the congregation pledges to abide by the principles of Zarathustra: "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds."
With such a philosophy, it is to be hoped that Zoroastrians will find a path to engage in constructive and peace-finding dialogue with the other religions and people in the region.
Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier