Set in the sprawling, outlying Tbilisi neighborhood of Varketili, it might almost be mistaken for just another earth-colored office building. Its cone-shaped dome suggests another purpose, but few outsiders venture inside to learn that this squat structure, bordered by scraggly grass, is a Yazidi temple.
The Yazidis, ethnic kin to the Kurds, live predominantly in northern Iraq, northern Syria and eastern Turkey, and follow a monotheistic faith. Known in the Caucasus for their presence in Armenia – soon to be the site of the world’s largest Yazidi temple – they are believed to have inhabited Georgia since the beginning of the 19th century.
But despite that history in Georgia, this ethno-religious community, some members say, faces challenges. At about 12, 000 people, the number of Yazidi Georgians has shrunk by a third since 2002, according to official data. Overall, they currently account for well under 1 percent of the country’s 3.7-million population.
Labor migration to Russia and Turkey plays a large role in that decline; Yazidis who fled ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria a few years ago have reportedly since left Georgia for a lack of jobs.
But assimilation within the country’s predominantly Orthodox Christian society has also had an effect, asserts Dimitri Pirbari, head of the Spiritual Council of Yazidis in Georgia.
Many younger Yazidis do not want to be different from their urban peers, he says, and often convert to other religions.
That trend concerns Piribari. For Yazidis, ethnic identity and religion are synonymous.
“They have only their memory reminding them of their Yazidi origin,” he says of converted Yazidis. “They lose all the rest: [their] identity, religion.”
“A true Yazidi is supposed to practice his or her religion,” underlines Sheikh Nuri, 59, the Tbilisi temple’s Russia-born, main priest.