KurdishMedia: Armenia’s Yezidi struggle to find post-Soviet identity


Armenia’s Yezidi struggle to find a post-Soviet identity
31 October 2004

Hetq online – By Onnik Krikorian

Armenia`s Yezidi community is the largest ethnic minority in the
Republic of Armenia. Yet, despite its small size, the community is
divided over its ethnic origins. Although many Yezidi outside of Armenia
consider themselves Kurds, in the Republic, most do not.

YEREVAN, Armenia — When Aziz Tamoyan sits behind his desk in the
cramped and dilapidated room that serves as his office in the Armenian
capital he says that he does so as President of the Republic’s largest
ethnic minority, the Yezidi. He also says that he is President of the
Yezidi worldwide even if few outside of Armenia appear to have heard of him.

Although their precise number is unknown, the followers of this small,
ancient Middle Eastern Religion are spread throughout Iraq, Syria,
Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and, as recent immigrants and refugees, in
Germany. Widely misconceived as “devil worshippers” because they believe
that Lucifer is reconciled with the creator, Yezidism in fact combines
elements from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Yet, despite the belief that the Yezidi are also ethnic Kurds who
resisted pressure to convert to Islam from the eleventh century onwards,
there have been attempts in Armenia to identify the minority as an
ethnic group separate from the Kurds since 1988. Moreover, in recent
years, and despite the fact that the Yezidi speak the Kurmanji dialect
of Kurdish, there have also been moves to reclassify their language as well.

Aziz Tamoyan, as President of the National Union of Yezidi in Armenia,
is considered to be one of the main proponents of such an initiative.

Pointing at the hand-made posters stuck on the wall to one side of his
cluttered desk, Tamoyan reads aloud the slogan that also serves as the
strap line for his newspaper. “My nationality is Yezidi, my language is
“Yezideren” and my religion is Sharfadin,” he proclaims, opening a copy
of “Yezdikhana” to reveal the results of the last census conducted in
Armenia three years ago.

“There are 40,620 Yezidi and 1,519 Kurds living in Armenia,” he
continues. “These are the official figures from the census and this
should be all that you need to know. The Yezidi have no connection with
the Kurds and there are no Moslem Kurds in Armenia. The 1,519 mentioned
are actually Yezidi who became Kurds and, according to the census,
nobody speaks Kurdish in Armenia.”

Tamoyan, however, doesn’t seem too interested in the section marked
“other” or the fact that few academics outside of the Republic appear to
agree with him. Instead, reflecting the deep divide that now exists
within the Yezidi community in Armenia, he wants to again emphasize that
not only is the very suggestion of any connection with the Kurds absurd,
but it is also insulting.

But Professor Philip Kreyenbroek, Chair of Iranian Studies at the
University of G?ettingen in Germany and a leading specialist on the
Kurds and the Yezidi of Turkey and Northern Iraq, disagrees.

“A community is naturally free to define its own identity but even so,
the Armenian Yezidi view is not easy to maintain,” he explains. “The
Yezidi religious and cultural tradition is deeply rooted in Kurdish
culture and almost all Yezidi sacred texts are in Kurdish. The language
all Yezidi communities have in common is Kurdish and most consider
themselves to be Kurds, although often with some reservations.”

And as if to illustrate the fact that these reservations have manifested
themselves in Armenia as a problem far out of proportion to the size of
the community, next door to Tamoyan’s office sits Amarik Sardar,
Chairman of the Council of Kurdish Intellectuals. Sardar is also the
editor of Riya Taza, established in 1930 and still the oldest surviving
Kurdish newspaper in the world.

“Unlike some people that confuse nationality with religion, I recognize
the distinction,” he says. “I am Yezidi by religion but also consider
myself to be a Kurd. The majority of Kurds in Armenia are also Yezidi
but apart from this religious distinction there is no other difference.”

Back next door, Tamoyan reacts angrily. “Nobody has the right to say
such things. If we are Kurds, why were 300,000 Yezidi killed along with
1.5 million Armenians during the Genocide [in Ottoman Turkey]? Why did
they [the Turks and Kurds] deport us? The Kurds are the enemies of both
the Armenians and the Yezidi.”

Indeed, most of Armenia ‘s Yezidi minority fled persecution and massacre
in Ottoman Turkey at the beginning of the twentieth century and it is
perhaps this shared experience that makes the issue of an albeit
non-Moslem Kurdish identity so sensitive in the Republic.

The Yezidi Movement in Armenia

During the atheistic system that determined identity based on language
in the soviet era, the Yezidi and Moslem Kurds living in Armenia were
once indeed considered members of the same ethnic group. However, during
the period of glasnost in 1988, some of Armenia’s Yezidi religious and
political leaders challenged this idea and a “Yezidi Movement” was formed.

The following year, an appeal was made to the soviet authorities
requesting that the Yezidi be considered as a separate nation. The
request was granted and in the last soviet-era census conducted in 1989,
out of approximately 60,000 Kurds that had been formerly identified as
living in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, 52,700 were for the first time
separately identified as Yezidis.

However, perhaps the timing for the emergence of this movement was not
entirely coincidental. In 1988, during the new period of “openness” that
defined the last years of the former Soviet Union, the Yezidi were not
the only ones to form a new national movement. In February, Armenians
took to the streets to demand that Nagorno Karabagh, a mainly
Armenian-inhabited territory situated within Moslem Azerbaijan, be
united with Christian Armenia.

The “Karabagh Movement” was born and pogroms against Armenians were
reported in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. In the tit-for-tat
expulsions that followed — marking the beginning of an ethnic conflict
that still remains unresolved to this day — 350,000 Armenians fled
Azerbaijan and 200,000 Azeris and Moslem Kurds left Armenia. The Yezidi,
along with smaller groups of other non-Moslem minorities, remained.

But Professor Garnik Asatrian, Director of the Caucasian Institute for
Iranian Studies in Yerevan — another driving force behind attempts to
identify the Yezidi as a separate nationality — disagrees that there
was any connection between the start of the conflict over Karabagh and
the promotion of a separate Yezidi identity. Instead, he says that
rivalry and animosity has always existed between the two groups.

“The Yezidi have always been persecuted by the Kurds,” he says, “and
they have a deep hatred for them. Although they speak Kurmanji, the
Yezidi don’t consider themselves Kurds and so, during the rebirth of
Armenia, it was natural that they try to regain their own identity and
religion. This was the main reason for the emergence of the Yezidi

However, at a recent event in the predominantly Yezidi-inhabited village
of Shamiram in the Aragatsotn Region of Armenia, pro-Kurdish speeches
were made on a stage that was also shared with government and local
officials — and in front of an audience that somewhat ironically,
identified themselves as non-Kurds. At the event held at the end of
September was Heydar Ali, a Kurd from Iraq who openly identifies himself
as the Caucasus Representative of Kongra-Gel, the organization formerly
known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“Certain [Armenian] officials are using this artificial division in the
community for their own interests,” says Ali. “Of course, when the
Moslem Kurds and Azeris left Armenia, some Yezidi might have hid their
Kurdish identity because they were frightened but in general, the
attitude of Armenian society towards Kurdish issues is otherwise
positive. We have lived together for centuries and we also have some
common interests.”

Nineteen-year-old Gohar Saroava, for example, is one of the few Moslem
Kurds that remain in Armenia and says that her family and two Kurdish
neighbors living in an otherwise Armenian village in the Kotayk Region
of the Republic have never experienced any discrimination. As a young
journalist working for the Kurdistan Committee in Yerevan, she is also
very open about her views on the Yezidi.

“I write about Kurdish life in Armenia and about our leader, Abdullah
Ocalan,” she says. “I have come to this [Yezidi] event today because we
are Kurds. Our religions may be different but we are from the same nation.”

Despite Saroava’s own personal experience, however, that is not to say
that there are many other Moslem Kurds left in Armenia. According to
reliable estimates, their actual number stands at around a few hundred
individuals (at most). Even Government officials privately acknowledge
that the 1,519 Kurds recorded in the 2001 census are mainly those Yezidi
who instead identified themselves as Kurds.

“Another complicating factor seems to have been the lure of PKK ideology
which attracts some Armenian Yezidi as it does many others,” explains
Kreyenbroek. “As the PKK stresses that Kurdish identity takes precedence
over religious affiliations, those that are influenced by it naturally
go back to calling themselves Kurds.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “more traditional groups feel
threatened and deny the connection between the Kurds and Yezidi all the
more strongly. To a lesser extent the same developments can be seen in
Germany , where dislike of the PKK causes some Yezidi to play down their
Kurdish identity, stressing the Yezidi aspect.”

“The division of the Armenian Yezidi into one smaller group identifying
themselves as Kurds and Kurmanji-speakers and one group defining
themselves as Yezidi with their own language is part of the post-Soviet
search for Identity,” adds Dr. Robert Langer, a member of the Dynamics
of Ritual Collaborative Research Unit at Ruprecht Karls University of
Heidelberg in Germany .

And it is the issue of language that might prove to be the greatest and
most immediate problem facing the Yezidi in Armenia. According to
Hranush Kharatyan, Head of the Government’s Department for National
Minorities and Religious Affairs, so significant is the issue that it is
now “the most actual problem existing among national minorities in the
Republic of Armenia .”

When the Armenian Government considered ratifying Kurmanji as the name
for the language spoken by the Yezidi and Kurds, for example, emotions
ran high and Kharatyan, in her capacity as a Government official, says
she was accused and threatened by both sides. In particular, she says,
Yezidi spiritual leaders demanded that their language instead be
classified as “Yezidi” even if in private they acknowledge that it is

Unable to satisfy both sides of the community, therefore, the Armenian
Government instead ratified both “Yezidi” and “Kurdish” under the
European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages even though they
are in fact, the same tongue. Kharatyan, however, says that because the
issue is so sensitive, the Yezidi should be allowed to determine their
own identity.

But, while such an attitude is commendable given the complexity of the
problem, others remain convinced that there are those in positions of
power that are intent on interfering. Some Kurds, for example, allege
that the reason for promoting a non-Kurdish identity among the Yezidi is
to prevent Armenia from being accused of supporting Kurdish separatists
in neighboring Turkey .

And during the presidency of Levon Ter Petrosyan, senior officials
including the President himself denied that there were any Kurds at all
in Armenia. More recently, under President Robert Kocharyan, the results
of the 2001 census have only complicated matters. Hranush Kharatyan,
however, strongly denies that there has been any interference at all.

“Despite the fact that I am an ethnologist and a scientist, I will call
people with the same name that they are calling themselves,” she says.
“I also understand that during the establishment of a national identity
that this transformation brings with it some very difficult and serious
problems. Because of this, the Government of the Republic of Armenia
will not interfere.”

“I don’t know what will happen to both sides of the community,” she
concludes, “but I do know that there are some people who are trying to
establish themselves. In the world, this is not the only example. Right
now, Croatians and Serbs are enemies even though genetically, they are
the same nation. However, there are no genetic nations. Nations are
social and from time to time, things change.”