YARMOUK COMPOUND, Iraq (AP) -- Tucked away in a mountainous area in northern Iraq is the Yarmouk Compound, home to followers of an obscure faith derided by some as a religion of devil worship.
Yazidi traditions are so shrouded in secrecy, no outsiders have seen its most important rituals. Few people besides Yazidi religious leaders have copies of the group's holy books.
Living on the margins of this predominantly Islamic country, Yazidis struggle to maintain their traditions, with many settling in the compound's 3,000 squat mud houses at the end of an unpaved three-mile road.
''It's better to live alone so that the morals of our youth wouldn't change,'' said Rashu Aizdu, a 56-year-old Yazidi school worker.
Yazidis are ethnic Kurds whose religion blends elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths, researchers say.
Sheik Adi, a Sufi Arab who lived in the 12th century in northern Iraq, is considered the religion's chief saint. Many Yazidi rituals center on the sheik's tomb, north of Mosul, where pilgrims hold festivals that include some ceremonies conducted in secret.
Accusations of satanic worship are rooted in a central figure in the Yazidi tradition called Malak Ta'us, or the Peacock Angel, who many Muslims and other non-Yazidis consider the devil.
Yazidis, however, believe Malak Ta'us fell from grace, then later repented and must be appeased to avert his wrath. Yazidis have a hymn dedicated to Malak Ta'us and often display his peacock image and kiss it as part of their rituals.
''He can kill us, destroy our houses and punish us. We fear him,'' said Aizdu, sitting on the floor in a bare room where the compound's men gather for coffee and a smoke.
Yazidis have small communities in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Armenia, but the majority of the estimated 100,000 followers of the religion live in Iraq.
Iraq's government boasts of its tolerance of the Yazidis, but Yazidis are little more than tolerated. Most live in poverty and are the target of contempt.
The government forbids discrimination in hiring or housing, but can't stop other Iraqis from calling Yazidis ''devil worshippers'' or viewing them as defiled.
Though their beliefs and lifestyle may set Yazidis apart from other Iraqis, they say times of need bring them closer, like in the army.
''We live together, sleep together (in the army) and fight the enemy together. One gives his blood to the other -- his friend, his brother,'' Aizdu said.
Nelida Fuccaro, a lecturer on modern Middle Eastern history at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter, England, said Yazidis were persecuted in colonial Iraq. Now there is no government policy of religious discrimination against them and they are generally better integrated into society, Fuccaro said. Still, social discrimination and prejudice against them continue, said Fuccaro, who wrote a book on Yazidis.
Ihsan Mohammed, a sociologist at Baghdad University, agrees.
''The government does not discriminate between one minority and another or between minorities and the larger society'' and fights those who do, he said.
Although some Yazidis in Iraq live in areas populated by Muslims or Christians, they generally prefer to live in all-Yazidi communities like Yarmouk Compound, created in the 1970s.
As little as Yarmouk offers, young Yazidis, like Ta'alo Haidar, refuse to leave, though they say they want a better life. Yazidis say they are particularly destitute, in an economy crippled by more than a decade of economic sanctions, imposed by the United Nations as punishment for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
''We want development here. We want roads, electricity and phones,'' said Haidar, a farm worker who lives in the compound.
Vehicles are rare here. Residents peer down from their roofs or peek from behind metal doors on hearing the sound of an approaching car.
Many Yazidis are related in this community near Mosul, some 200 miles north of Baghdad, and virtually everyone knows each other. Most young men in the compound commute to work on farms in nearby villages and towns.
Today, most speak Kurdish and few understand Arabic -- the language of their holy books, called Kitab al-Jilwah, the Book of Emergence or Book of Revelation, and Mashef Rash, the Black Book.
Men are encouraged to leave beards untrimmed, grow their hair and braid it. They prefer to dress in white, since they believe their religion sanctifies the color. Yazidis regard marriage outside their faith as a sin punishable by ostracizing or even death to restore lost honor.
Among their more unusual beliefs is that evil is found in lettuce; therefore, the vegetable should never be eaten. It is one of the traditions Yazidis said they make sure to observe though they don't know their origin.
''We have to follow our traditions,'' Aizdu said.
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