All Kurds dream of a free Kurdistan, and they hope the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will help them turn dream into reality.

The Medes and the Chaldeans captured Nineveh in 612 B.C., 130 years after Jonah was sent to “that great city” (Jon 1:2). Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, defeated the kingdom of the Medes in 550 B.C. Cyrus is best known in Jewish history for his famous decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity in 539 B.C. (Ezra 1:1-4). Medes are again mentioned as being present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9).

The Greeks, Romans, Parthians and, later, Muslim caliphates conquered various Kurdish clans. Still, the Kurds enjoyed occasional periods of relative peace until the arrival of the Turkish nomads in the 12th and 13th centuries. During the 16th to 18th centuries, the Turks captured many Kurdish towns and villages, and deported many Kurds from their traditional homes to the far corners of the Turks’ Ottoman Empire.

By 1867, the last autonomous Kurdish principality had been conquered by the Turkish and Persian governments. With the Treaty of Sevres in 1921, France and Britain divided up Kurdish areas in the old Ottoman Empire among Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, after the Arabs, Persians and Turks. They are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without their own country. Five million Kurds live in western Iran; 4 million live in northern and eastern Iraq; 10 million live in eastern Turkey; and 1 million live in northern Syria.

The total number of Kurds living in the Middle East is estimated at 20 million, although some sources put the number much higher. By contrast, the population of Saudi Arabia is only 21 million.

Kurds in Turkey may become the majority ethnic group there within 50 years, a fact that has not been missed by the Turkish government, which has aggressively opposed any hint of Kurdish culture and self-determination within its borders. In the current Iraq war, the United States has expressed concern Turkey may cross the border into Iraq to prevent any Kurdish effort at independence in northern Iraq.

The Kurdish language, with its several major dialects, is fundamentally different from Semitic Arabic and Turkish languages, which also sets Kurds apart from their neighbors in the various countries where they live. Sixty percent of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. A small minority are Shia and Sufi Muslims. Minor communities of Jews, Christians and Baha’is are found among the Kurds.

Most non-Muslim Kurds, approximately 30 percent of all Kurds, follow an indigenous Kurdish faith, loosely called the “Cult of the Angels,” Yazdani in Kurdish. There are three branches of the Cult of the Angels. Followers believe in seven luminous, angelic beings, who protect the universe from an equal number of dark forces of matter. Followers believe in the transmigration of souls through numerous reincarnations, and also a “Universal Spirit” whose major involvement in the world was as creator.

The other angelic beings may appear as “avatars.” The Cult accepts Muhammad and Ali, the first Shia Imam, as avatars, a teaching that has brought persecution from Shia Muslims. The Cult is a universalist religion. Its believers have little difficulty being associated with Islam, Christianity or any other religion, which are seen as versions of the Cult.

Some Cult followers comfortably claim to be Shia Muslims, despite the fact that their basic teachings conflict with those in the Qur’an. The Cult does not have a single holy book accepted by all followers. Cult tradition says the Magi, or wise men who visited the Christ child, were leaders of the Cult of the Angels.

The Cult rejects the idea of a physical heaven or hell. After reincarnations, “righteous” people become one with the Universal Spirit. The unrighteous and the material world will be annihilated.

A ritual gathering or ceremony, called a “Jamkhana” or simply “Jam,” is held every seven days. The number “seven” is a holy number. A major ceremony is held once per year, the date of which varies among the branches.

All Kurds dream of a free Kurdistan, and they hope the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will help them turn dream into reality.

Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.

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