By Jo and Nora
In October 2022, Jo travelled to Rojava, as part of the Water for Rojava committee, visiting co-operatives and representatives of the women’s movement and other economic, water and education structures in the region.
Water for Rojava is a campaign initiated by the Solidarity Economy Association that has so far raised over £150,000 for vital water projects and women’s co-operatives in North and East Syria, a region currently facing a catastrophic water crisis as a result of Turkish state policies and damming of rivers upstream. Turkey is also currently waging a new large-scale military war against the entire region of Kurdistan.
Rojava is the Kurdish name for the autonomous region officially known as North and East Syria. The region is administrated by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Despite political, economic, and military repression by the Syrian and Turkish states, the people of Rojava are building a unique political project: a multi-ethnic democratic society based on gender equality, ecological regeneration, and real democracy, through locally devolved power[i].
The AANES recognises the rights of religious and ethnic minorities to practice their culture and beliefs freely, openly, and autonomously as a fundamental aspect of its political project. This aim has been realized to some extent, although there are contradictions and disagreements within and between minority groups and the AANES[ii].
As part of their visit to Rojava, Jo’s delegation met with a group of people representing some of the many different faiths in the region, including an Armenian Christian woman, a Zoroastrian woman, a Yezidi man, a Syriac Christian man and two Muslim men. The meeting was held in Kurdish with English interpretation.
The group came together after the International Congress on Mesopotamian Religions and Beliefs, held at Rojava University in January 2022. They work together to promote interfaith understanding and cooperation, and to fight religious sectarianism. One of the Muslim representatives, Mohamed Abdulrahman, explained his view:
“If God created us differently, with different colours and languages, we should also be following our own religions and we should give each other space for this and not deny each other’s religions and experiences. The word ‘god’ has a different meaning, but also a common understanding between each religion.”
Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious community in Rojava. Many Christians in this area are descended from survivors of the genocide of Armenians and other Christian peoples of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. After the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011, Christian communities suffered large-scale attacks from ISIS, the Turkish Armed Forces and their proxy militias, and other radical jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.[iii]
Hana Barsum, the Syriac Christian representative, explained that:
“The Christian community here faced genocide by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. When again in 2012, Al-Nusra was threatening the region, we had these concerns. We decided to unite here with all the society here in North and East Syria and meet in the Mosque, and from here we were collaborating and making a plan to stand against this […] When the battle started in Serê Kaniyê, we sent about 3,000 fighters to participate. We realised if we did not stop them, they would also come to Qamishlo and we would face the same situation as in 1915.”
Yezidis are a religious and ethnic minority in Rojava who have faced persecution and genocide. Yezidis trace their beliefs as far back as 2500 BC. They have a monotheistic God, believed to be only the creator and no longer an active, immanent force in the world. They pray twice a day; when the sun rises and when it sets.[iv]
Zoroastrianism is another old religious tradition which is thought to have emerged from a polytheistic Indo-Iranian religion in the 10th century BC[v]. Before 2011, the Syrian Arab Republic denied and suppressed Yezidi, Zoroastrian, and other minority ethnic and religious identities.
Bekir, the Yezidi representative said:
“My name is Bekir, but in the Syrian Arab Republic I was registered as Bekiri, which is a more Arabic sounding name. We were afraid to even identify ourselves or to build an identity as Yezidis. Now we recognise ourselves, we are recognised in the schools and in the system here […] I am a Yezidi and I now go to the mosque, and we all know each other’s ceremonies and traditions.”
Minal Sadûn, the Zoroastrian representative added:
“We shared the same problems as the Yezidi and Armenians. We were hidden here and did not have any rights. We were completely unrecognised. Because of this association, during the [Autonomous] Administration we have started to write about our own religion and perform our own ceremonies. Our religion is one of joy, hope and pride.”
In 2014, ISIS attacked the city of Shengal in Iraq, killing thousands of Yezidis, raping and kidnapping thousands of Yezidi women, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. Hana Barsum described the impact of the interfaith work in Rojava on communities such as Shengal that have been decimated by genocide:
“We also went to Shengal. For the first time the people of Shengal welcomed a delegation of people from all religions. They were surprised about what was happening, particularly the collaboration between Christians and Yezidis. They noticed that all of us being together, including the Muslims, they realised the genocide had stopped.”
The Water for Rojava Fund is still open for donations: www.solidarityeconomy.coop/donate
[ii] https://rojavainformationcenter.com/storage/2020/09/rojava-information-center-ensuring-a-future-for-ethnic-religious-minorities-final-sept-2020-medium.pdf p.3
[iii] Ibid p.2
[iv] Ibid p.23
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