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BOUND TO PLEASE / Startling religious variety in hidden corners of Mideast

Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterHeirs to Forgotten Kingdoms

By Gerard Russell

Basic Books, 320pp

Over the past year, an Iraqi minority called the Yazidis have been in the news as victims of atrocities by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group. Copts have also been in the news as a persecuted minority in North Africa.

Decades earlier, the Druze were often mentioned in reports about Lebanon’s civil war. Going much further back, Jesus is recorded as having spoken to and about people called Samaritans.

But who are the Yazidis, the Copts, the Druze and the Samaritans?

Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat who spent many years in the Middle East, has written a fascinating book that shines a spotlight on these little-known religious minorities. He gives a chapter to each, as well as to Kalasha, Mandaeans and Zoroastrians.

Some of these groups have secret doctrines, and most have good reason to be wary of outsiders. This makes precise descriptions a slippery business.

Each of Russell’s chapters, therefore, takes the form of a meandering but enlightening essay that describes his visits to and discussions with members of these groups, their relations with their nearest (usually Muslim) neighbors, and their appearances in the more familiar histories of larger groups. He includes interesting digressions into topics such as the high regard in which Shiite Muslim scholars hold ancient Greek philosophers — especially Plato.

The Kalasha, “the last pagans of Pakistan,” are the most isolated group he writes about, dwelling in remote mountain valleys, drinking wine and sacrificing goats.

Other groups have clear links to larger religions. Samaritans and Jews split off from each other after the writing of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and lived as rivals for millennia.

Christians, representing a later offshoot of Judaism, consider John the Baptist to have been a kind of advance man for his cousin Jesus, but the Mandaeans who live in Iraq’s river marshes hold the two in equally high regard, and are baptized multiple times throughout their lives.

The Copts, Egypt’s indigenous Christians, put the emphasis on Jesus — but their worship of him includes music and art that Russell says have roots in the long-gone religion of the pharaohs.

The Druze count Jesus, Mohammed and the Greek philosopher Pythagoras among their forebears. They believe in reincarnation, but not in the sense of individual souls wandering through time. Instead, the Druze say they are reincarnated as a group; their community has been united in body and spirit for thousands of years. Because of this teaching, their strongest religious obligation is to marry within the group.

One prominent Druze who recently broke this rule is international human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, who last year married Hollywood movie star George Clooney.

Russell cites a news report that captured one elderly Druze woman’s “unimpressed” reaction to the marriage: “Aren’t there any young Druze men left? God give you better luck, my girl.”

Where to read

On a bench at the zoo, near the peacock enclosure. As the otherworldly birds watch you read, you’ll learn about the very different roles they play in the Yazidi and Zoroastrian religions.

Maruzen price: ¥5,403 plus tax (as of Sept. 16, 2015)

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