An interview with Seraphim Maamdi, an Orthodox Kurd
Out of the thirty million Kurds living in the world, the great majority confess Islam, while the lesser part practices Yazidism. According to the 2002 census, there are 19,600 Moslem Kurds and 31,300 Yazidi Kurds living in Russia. Few know that at the present time, representatives of these people are coming to Orthodoxy and becoming members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Seraphim Maamdi talks about this in more detail.
—Seraphim, please tell us about yourself, and how you came to the Orthodox faith.
—I was born and raised in [the country of] Georgia. I am a Kurd by nationality, and my roots are in Turkish Kurdistan. After the genocide of our people at the beginning of the twentieth century, part of the Kurds moved to Armenia, and from there to Georgia, Russia, and other countries. My forebears were part of this diaspora. A large portion of the Kurds confesses Islam, while the smaller portion practices the syncretistic cult called Yazidism. I was a Yazid. As all Yazidi, I went as a child with my relatives to the Orthodox church; we had icons at home, before which we placed candles on Sundays and feast days—that is, it was considered normal to worship the sun and go to church at the same time. But I was very drawn to Christ. When I heard about Him on television, or when someone would tell me about Him, I would always listen with great curiosity. In 2002, my family and I moved to Moscow. Here, someone gave me a copy of the New Testament. That is where it all began…
I read the Gospels for four or five hours a day; at times I would read it throughout the whole night. I read it and could not get enough of reading it, and learned many passages by heart, even before I was baptized. I was amazed at how the world around me would change after I had read about Christ. This was my first meeting with the Lord; He turned my whole life upside down, and I simply fell in love with Him. Yazidism does not give that; there is no meeting with God in it, no living communion between God and man. There is no contact with the Creator at all. The Yazid god is very far from man. But in Christianity, the most important thing I found is a living communion with the Lord. This cannot be imparted in words—when you are with God… it is hard to explain it to a person who has never experienced communion with God, as the Prophet David said, Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Ps. 33:9). You have to taste it yourself.
So, I decided to be baptized. When I went to Church as I had done many times, the service was going on, and I was only able to stand through about two minutes of it—I suddenly felt very heavy. Later, a priest explained to me that an evil spirit nests in a person who is not baptized, and it tries to prevent that person from coming to the Lord. I went to Nizhny Novgorod and met there a priest who gave several hours of his time per day in order to prepare me properly. I prepared myself for Baptism very seriously, and consider this to be the most important thing I have done in my life.
My baptism took place on the feast of Pentecost, 2007. When I woke up that morning, I felt fear and heaviness in my heart. I came to the church, and the priest asked me with a smile, ”Do you want to run away?” Then the rite of the catechumen began, and when the priest read the first prayers and placed his hand on my head, I fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was sitting in a chair, and the priest was sprinkling me with holy water. After the Baptism we held lit candles—a sign of eternal union with Christ—and walked three times around the baptismal font. I sensed how my heart had been transformed, and I felt an unspeakable joy. I did not feel my feet; it seemed to me that I was floating, and everything around me had changed. I became a new person. There are no words to express what the Lord revealed to me in the depths of my heart. I felt the hand of God. From an early age, I used to have inexplicable attacks of fear; I would wake up in the middle of the night in horror and walk around the house, afraid of something—I didn’t know what it was, or what was happening to me. But after my baptism, this all went away, completely went away. I began to see the world with different eyes, and people around me also noticed the change that the Lord had wrought in me through baptism. At my spiritual birth I received the name Seraphim, and from that moment on, Christ became the meaning of my life, and my goal has become following Him.
—How do your relatives view your baptism?
—My family has always for the most part related favorably to Orthodoxy, just as practically all Yazidi do. As I said, they can go to church, have icons at home, but consider baptism unnecessary, and do not even understand the significance of this sacrament. That was the opinion of my parents also. When I said that I wanted to be baptized, my parents were against it, and in their persuasion I could hear, ”Alright, get baptized, but not now—some time later.” Finally, I told them resolutely that I am going to be baptized no matter what. My relatives were indignant at my choice. Then by God’s mercy nearly all of them were baptized, one-by-one, and may God grant that the rest also be baptized. I am very glad that I was able to be of use in introducing my relatives and some other Kurds to Orthodoxy.
—Are there many Christians in general amongst the Kurds? How far back does the history of Kurdish Christianity go?
—We know that the ancestors of modern Kurds, the Medes and the Parthians, received Christianity during its first centuries. There were even separate Kurdish principalities that confessed Christianity. There were many Orthodox Kurds in eastern Anatolia, and some of them are parishioners of the Constantinople Church to this day. With the rise of Islam, everything changed. Kurds found themselves surrounded by Moslems, and Christianity was gradually uprooted from the Kurds. Now, in Georgia, Kurds are becoming Orthodox en masse. It is notable that this movement is coming from the people themselves—no one is missionizing; they are going to church on their own initiative. Of course, if there were an dedicated mission to them, there would be more fruit. The success of various Protestant missionary groups among the Kurds is an indication of this. The exact number of Christian Kurds is unknown, and there has been no research into this, but it is estimated that there are tens of thousands, and the number is growing. In Russia, there are many Orthodox Kurds. If the Lord blesses, and I hope, there will be a Kurdish Orthodox community in Moscow.
—You mentioned that you used to be a Yazid. Could you tell us a little about this faith?
—The center of Yazidism is in Iraq. Yazidism in its current form arose in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. The founder of this religion was the Sufi theologian, Sheik Adi, an Arab, who seriously changed the both the dogmas and rites that were in practice formerly amongst the Kurds. He introduced into Yazidism many elements of Islam, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, and Judaism. But the Yazidi also preserved certain old beliefs resembling Zoroastrianism, which is based upon the worship of fire, the sun, and the forces of nature. The Yazidi later deified Sheik Adi. They also have a special veneration of angels, amongst which they also include an evil spirit, whom they call Malak Tavus. Malak Tavus speaks of himself in Yazid sacred writings thus: ”There is no place where I am not present; I participate in all events that people of other religions call evil because these events do not correspond to their wishes” (Jilva 1:3). The Yazidi also consider him a divinity that created the material world, using the dismembered parts of the primordial cosmic egg. Pushkin even wrote about the Yazidi relationship to this spirit when he traveled in Arzrum. ”I tried to learn from a Yazid the truth about their religion. At my questions, he answered that the rumors that the Yazidi worship satan are empty fables, that they believe in one god, and that the devil is cursed according to their law; true, this is considered indecent and ignoble, for he is now unhappy, but in time he can be forgiven, as one must not place a limit on Allah’s mercy.” They consider that god will forgive him soon, but they do not say whether he himself wants this forgiveness.
In general, there is much in Yazidism that is not entirely clear. The two Yazidi sacred books, the ”Jilva” (the ”Book of Revelations”) compiled in the twelfth century, and ”Maskhafe Rash” (”Black book”), compiled in the seventeenth century, often contradict each other. You can find in them a severely distorted Biblical history, and tales of angels in which the personal histories of specific Sufis can be discerned. It is described how a certain god creates other gods to be his helpers in the creation of the world. The Yazidi believe that they were created separately from all other people; that is, that the forefathers of all Yazidi came about as the result of the union of two powers—the heavenly (the seed of the angel) and the earthly (the seed of Adam). Their idea of Christ is basically the same as that expressed in the Koran. But it is also said that ”until the appearance of Christ in this world, there was one religion called ‘idolatry’” (Maskhafe Rash, 25). Yazidi have taken certain things from Christianity—they color eggs, for example. The Iraqi Yazidi have a rite that copies baptism—a triple immersion in water with a cutting of hair on the head, and much else. There is a particular place set aside in Yazidism for sun-worship. When a Yazid wakes up, the first thing he does is to direct his gaze to the sun and say, ”O sun, you are our master.” It is considered that a Yazidi can only be born—there is no rite of accepting Yazidism. Their understanding of sin is extremely vague.
—What can you say about the prospects of an Orthodox mission to the Kurds?
—I think that the prospects are very great, inasmuch as many Kurds are well-disposed to Christianity. This even applies to the Moslems; I have seen this during missionary trips to Kurdish villages, where I was met with a hearty welcome, and saw how they listened to us and eagerly took our Orthodox literature. But this applies even more to Yazidi Kurds. They have long been accustomed to viewing Christians as their allies, and it is no accident that when the genocide was being conducted in the Ottoman Empire, the Yazidi fled specifically to Christian countries. When I was in one of the dioceses of our Church last summer, I heard that in one city where there is a large community of Yazidi Kurds, that community had almost entirely restored an Orthodox church using their own money. When a local Chechen diaspora wanted to build a mosque in that city and were collecting signatures, the Yazidi did not support the building of a mosque, and it in fact was never built.
Of course, here, just as in any mission, it is important to have the Holy Scripture and prayers in their native language. With regard to the former, the Institute of Bible Translations in Moscow has already translated and published the New Testament and Pentateuch into the Kurdish language (Kurmanji). As for the latter, so far we have only translated a few of the main Orthodox prayers, and there is much more work yet to do. It is important that more missionaries would come from amongst the Orthodox Kurds themselves, and extremely important that there be Orthodox priests who are Kurds; but I believe that the Lord will bring this to pass when it be pleasing to Him. The sincere fatherly attention that Patriarch Kirill has given to the needs of Orthodox Kurds when the Lord vouchsafed me to meet with His Holiness is very dear to me personally. It is also very meaningful to me that I was able, if only briefly, to learn from a remarkable missionary, Fr. Daniel Sisoev, who was my spiritual instructor, and who, as you know, was murdered in his own church—he accepted death for the name of Christ. I believe that the time will come when the light of Christ will shine over Kurdistan.