Sects in the Cities: meet 10 minority religions in the Middle East

Published August 20th, 2015 - 10:42 GMT

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Bring up faith in the Middle East, and three Abrahamic religions will dominate the convo. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism form the triad of True Faith, but other native-born belief systems have also shaped the face of our region, providing identity and moral guidance for people here and across the world.

The Middle East is rich in religious history, and where strong faiths collide and compete for dominance, persecution and war inevitably follow.

The rights and religious freedom of the Zoroastrians - perhaps the planet’s oldest organized faith - were first trampled by Alexander the Great and continued to be abused by the religious fervor that swept across Iran in the 1979 revolution. Continue reading below »

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Zoroastrianism, founded circa 1400 BCE by Persian prophet Zoroaster, might be the oldest monotheistic religion. Followers believe God (Ahura Mazda) gives them free will and commands them to perform a lifetime of good deeds. Famous faithful?  Maybe the three wise men attendant at Christ’s birth, but definitely rocker Freddie Mercury.
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Image 1 of 10:  1 / 10Zoroastrianism, founded circa 1400 BCE by Persian prophet Zoroaster, might be the oldest monotheistic religion. Followers believe God (Ahura Mazda) gives them free will and commands them to perform a lifetime of good deeds. Famous faithful? Maybe the three wise men attendant at Christ’s birth, but definitely rocker Freddie Mercury.

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Yazidism draws on Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Yazidi worship one god and honor seven angels, including a rebel one - Melek Taus – who God eventually forgave and restored to a spot in heaven. Outsiders often confuse Melek and Lucifer, giving Yazidi a rep as devil worshippers. They are an Iraqi ethnic minority, mostly Kurdish.
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Image 2 of 10:  2 / 10Yazidism draws on Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Yazidi worship one god and honor seven angels, including a rebel one - Melek Taus – who God eventually forgave and restored to a spot in heaven. Outsiders often confuse Melek and Lucifer, giving Yazidi a rep as devil worshippers. They are an Iraqi ethnic minority, mostly Kurdish.

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Samaritanism is related to Judaism, but the 800 +/-  remaining Samaritans insist they aren't Jews. Self-named “The Keepers” for their role preserving the Torah (they reject later texts like the Talmud), they are concentrated near their holy site of Mount Gerizim, close to Nablus. Yes, they're the guys linked to the term ‘a good Samaritan’.
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Image 3 of 10:  3 / 10Samaritanism is related to Judaism, but the 800 +/- remaining Samaritans insist they aren't Jews. Self-named “The Keepers” for their role preserving the Torah (they reject later texts like the Talmud), they are concentrated near their holy site of Mount Gerizim, close to Nablus. Yes, they're the guys linked to the term ‘a good Samaritan’.

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Druze hatched in ancient Egypt.  Mainly practiced in the Levant, it's linked to Islam with distinctions: Druze don’t pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan nor make Mecca pilgrimages. They believe God incarnated as human (Caliph al-Hakim). Muslims believe he died in 1021; Druze (Amal Clooney is one!) say he’ll return to earth on Judgment Day.
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Image 4 of 10:  4 / 10Druze hatched in ancient Egypt. Mainly practiced in the Levant, it's linked to Islam with distinctions: Druze don’t pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan nor make Mecca pilgrimages. They believe God incarnated as human (Caliph al-Hakim). Muslims believe he died in 1021; Druze (Amal Clooney is one!) say he’ll return to earth on Judgment Day.

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Mandaeans date back for millennia; now found in lower Iraq and southwestern Iran. They speak Arabic, Farsi, and Mandraic - their own religious language. Known for extreme pacifism, they believe only God may take a life. These monotheists face the North Star during prayer, bathe in moving water on Sundays, and view John the Baptist as their savior.
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Image 5 of 10:  5 / 10Mandaeans date back for millennia; now found in lower Iraq and southwestern Iran. They speak Arabic, Farsi, and Mandraic - their own religious language. Known for extreme pacifism, they believe only God may take a life. These monotheists face the North Star during prayer, bathe in moving water on Sundays, and view John the Baptist as their savior.

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Coptic, loosely ‘Egyptian” in Greek, is the name of the church founded by St. Mark in Alexandria. Followers - including former UN leader Boutros Boutros-Ghali - share many beliefs with Roman Catholics and emphasize asceticism (self-denial and being satisfied with minimal needs). Unlike most Christians, Copts celebrate Christmas in January.
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Image 6 of 10:  6 / 10Coptic, loosely ‘Egyptian” in Greek, is the name of the church founded by St. Mark in Alexandria. Followers - including former UN leader Boutros Boutros-Ghali - share many beliefs with Roman Catholics and emphasize asceticism (self-denial and being satisfied with minimal needs). Unlike most Christians, Copts celebrate Christmas in January.

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Alawi is named after the caliph Ali. It agrees with Shiite doctrine that he is Muhammad’s true successor, yet diverges from Shia beliefs, folding in doctrine and ritual from Zoroastrianism and Christianity, even celebrating some of their holidays. Alawites have seven pillars - not five as in Islam - and see these as symbols rather than duties.
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Image 7 of 10:  7 / 10Alawi is named after the caliph Ali. It agrees with Shiite doctrine that he is Muhammad’s true successor, yet diverges from Shia beliefs, folding in doctrine and ritual from Zoroastrianism and Christianity, even celebrating some of their holidays. Alawites have seven pillars - not five as in Islam - and see these as symbols rather than duties.

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Bahai stems from Shia Islam but many Muslims consider it a heretical offshoot. Bahais believe in two God-sent messengers (Báb and Bahá’u’lláh) and acknowledge prophets of many religions, including Jesus, Mohammad, Moses and Buddha. They advocate the oneness of humanity, with full equality between men, women and all races.
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Image 8 of 10:  8 / 10Bahai stems from Shia Islam but many Muslims consider it a heretical offshoot. Bahais believe in two God-sent messengers (Báb and Bahá’u’lláh) and acknowledge prophets of many religions, including Jesus, Mohammad, Moses and Buddha. They advocate the oneness of humanity, with full equality between men, women and all races.

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Ishikism is loosely based on Alevism, a mystical branch of Islam concentrated in Turkey, but it proposes a alternate view of Alevism history. Believers claim their religion is the world’s oldest and the source for all religions. In order to survive centuries of persecution, this 'First and True Religion' has changed shapes over time.
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Image 9 of 10:  9 / 10Ishikism is loosely based on Alevism, a mystical branch of Islam concentrated in Turkey, but it proposes a alternate view of Alevism history. Believers claim their religion is the world’s oldest and the source for all religions. In order to survive centuries of persecution, this "First and True Religion" has changed shapes over time.

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Shabaks live in Iraq’s Nineveh plains and speak Shabaki, which is also spoken in northwestern Iran. There’s been much speculation whether they are actually Shia Muslims, or even if their religion is truly unique as they incorporate elements of Sufism and Christianity into their practices. You can only become a Shabak by birth.
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Image 10 of 10:  10 / 10Shabaks live in Iraq’s Nineveh plains and speak Shabaki, which is also spoken in northwestern Iran. There’s been much speculation whether they are actually Shia Muslims, or even if their religion is truly unique as they incorporate elements of Sufism and Christianity into their practices. You can only become a Shabak by birth.

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1

Zoroastrianism, founded circa 1400 BCE by Persian prophet Zoroaster, might be the oldest monotheistic religion. Followers believe God (Ahura Mazda) gives them free will and commands them to perform a lifetime of good deeds. Famous faithful?  Maybe the three wise men attendant at Christ’s birth, but definitely rocker Freddie Mercury.

Image 1 of 10Zoroastrianism, founded circa 1400 BCE by Persian prophet Zoroaster, might be the oldest monotheistic religion. Followers believe God (Ahura Mazda) gives them free will and commands them to perform a lifetime of good deeds. Famous faithful? Maybe the three wise men attendant at Christ’s birth, but definitely rocker Freddie Mercury.

2

Yazidism draws on Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Yazidi worship one god and honor seven angels, including a rebel one - Melek Taus – who God eventually forgave and restored to a spot in heaven. Outsiders often confuse Melek and Lucifer, giving Yazidi a rep as devil worshippers. They are an Iraqi ethnic minority, mostly Kurdish.

Image 2 of 10Yazidism draws on Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Yazidi worship one god and honor seven angels, including a rebel one - Melek Taus – who God eventually forgave and restored to a spot in heaven. Outsiders often confuse Melek and Lucifer, giving Yazidi a rep as devil worshippers. They are an Iraqi ethnic minority, mostly Kurdish.

3

Samaritanism is related to Judaism, but the 800 +/-  remaining Samaritans insist they aren't Jews. Self-named “The Keepers” for their role preserving the Torah (they reject later texts like the Talmud), they are concentrated near their holy site of Mount Gerizim, close to Nablus. Yes, they're the guys linked to the term ‘a good Samaritan’.

Image 3 of 10Samaritanism is related to Judaism, but the 800 +/- remaining Samaritans insist they aren't Jews. Self-named “The Keepers” for their role preserving the Torah (they reject later texts like the Talmud), they are concentrated near their holy site of Mount Gerizim, close to Nablus. Yes, they're the guys linked to the term ‘a good Samaritan’.

4

Druze hatched in ancient Egypt.  Mainly practiced in the Levant, it's linked to Islam with distinctions: Druze don’t pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan nor make Mecca pilgrimages. They believe God incarnated as human (Caliph al-Hakim). Muslims believe he died in 1021; Druze (Amal Clooney is one!) say he’ll return to earth on Judgment Day.

Image 4 of 10Druze hatched in ancient Egypt. Mainly practiced in the Levant, it's linked to Islam with distinctions: Druze don’t pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan nor make Mecca pilgrimages. They believe God incarnated as human (Caliph al-Hakim). Muslims believe he died in 1021; Druze (Amal Clooney is one!) say he’ll return to earth on Judgment Day.

5

Mandaeans date back for millennia; now found in lower Iraq and southwestern Iran. They speak Arabic, Farsi, and Mandraic - their own religious language. Known for extreme pacifism, they believe only God may take a life. These monotheists face the North Star during prayer, bathe in moving water on Sundays, and view John the Baptist as their savior.

Image 5 of 10Mandaeans date back for millennia; now found in lower Iraq and southwestern Iran. They speak Arabic, Farsi, and Mandraic - their own religious language. Known for extreme pacifism, they believe only God may take a life. These monotheists face the North Star during prayer, bathe in moving water on Sundays, and view John the Baptist as their savior.

6

Coptic, loosely ‘Egyptian” in Greek, is the name of the church founded by St. Mark in Alexandria. Followers - including former UN leader Boutros Boutros-Ghali - share many beliefs with Roman Catholics and emphasize asceticism (self-denial and being satisfied with minimal needs). Unlike most Christians, Copts celebrate Christmas in January.

Image 6 of 10Coptic, loosely ‘Egyptian” in Greek, is the name of the church founded by St. Mark in Alexandria. Followers - including former UN leader Boutros Boutros-Ghali - share many beliefs with Roman Catholics and emphasize asceticism (self-denial and being satisfied with minimal needs). Unlike most Christians, Copts celebrate Christmas in January.

7

Alawi is named after the caliph Ali. It agrees with Shiite doctrine that he is Muhammad’s true successor, yet diverges from Shia beliefs, folding in doctrine and ritual from Zoroastrianism and Christianity, even celebrating some of their holidays. Alawites have seven pillars - not five as in Islam - and see these as symbols rather than duties.

Image 7 of 10Alawi is named after the caliph Ali. It agrees with Shiite doctrine that he is Muhammad’s true successor, yet diverges from Shia beliefs, folding in doctrine and ritual from Zoroastrianism and Christianity, even celebrating some of their holidays. Alawites have seven pillars - not five as in Islam - and see these as symbols rather than duties.

8

Bahai stems from Shia Islam but many Muslims consider it a heretical offshoot. Bahais believe in two God-sent messengers (Báb and Bahá’u’lláh) and acknowledge prophets of many religions, including Jesus, Mohammad, Moses and Buddha. They advocate the oneness of humanity, with full equality between men, women and all races.

Image 8 of 10Bahai stems from Shia Islam but many Muslims consider it a heretical offshoot. Bahais believe in two God-sent messengers (Báb and Bahá’u’lláh) and acknowledge prophets of many religions, including Jesus, Mohammad, Moses and Buddha. They advocate the oneness of humanity, with full equality between men, women and all races.

9

Ishikism is loosely based on Alevism, a mystical branch of Islam concentrated in Turkey, but it proposes a alternate view of Alevism history. Believers claim their religion is the world’s oldest and the source for all religions. In order to survive centuries of persecution, this 'First and True Religion' has changed shapes over time.

Image 9 of 10Ishikism is loosely based on Alevism, a mystical branch of Islam concentrated in Turkey, but it proposes a alternate view of Alevism history. Believers claim their religion is the world’s oldest and the source for all religions. In order to survive centuries of persecution, this "First and True Religion" has changed shapes over time.

10

Shabaks live in Iraq’s Nineveh plains and speak Shabaki, which is also spoken in northwestern Iran. There’s been much speculation whether they are actually Shia Muslims, or even if their religion is truly unique as they incorporate elements of Sufism and Christianity into their practices. You can only become a Shabak by birth.

Image 10 of 10Shabaks live in Iraq’s Nineveh plains and speak Shabaki, which is also spoken in northwestern Iran. There’s been much speculation whether they are actually Shia Muslims, or even if their religion is truly unique as they incorporate elements of Sufism and Christianity into their practices. You can only become a Shabak by birth.

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Mandeans were all but voiceless under Saddam Hussein, yet since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the Sabean-Mandeans have struggled for survival against contemporary sectarian conflict and religious extremism.

And most recently, the fate of the Yazidis played out on the world’s television screens, first stranded on Mount Sinjar, then tales of atrocities and forced conversion, and stories of women captured for use as sex slaves.

The millions who turn to the Quran, Old and New Testaments will keep the teachings of their prophets protected, but the raft of smaller faith systems is sinking in the wake of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and al-Nusra chaos. Our ancient religions have become some of the biggest casualties of war. Some of them are nearing extinction.

Here, we fill in a few gaps around the three big boys of belief with a quick snapshot of the makeup of the Middle East’s minority religions. Warning: There may lie some fogginess around the classification of these smaller groupings into strict religious categories (Muslim, Christian, Jewish); and that confusion remains given that some of these sects fall through the cracks.

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