Êzîdî

The U.S. military delivers food and water to starving people and launches air strikes against the advancing militants
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, take refuge at Dohuk province.
Avi Asher-Schapiro
For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq’s estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. “Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community,” explains Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen. “Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion,” she adds.
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The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages. Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.
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As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. “Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth,” warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.
While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation. “This dilemma to convert or die is not new,” says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.
A Misunderstood Religion
Iraqi Yazidi families who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, are given food at a school where they are taking shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that mixes with Islam some elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean. This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century, and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local Zoroastrian beliefs.
Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.
“To this day, many Muslims consider them to be devil worshipers,” says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. “So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions,” he adds.
The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late this week.
Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by the leaders of Kurdish principalities under Ottoman control, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. “Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation,” says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees. “Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity,” he says.
Isolated geographically, and accustomed to religious persecution, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq’s Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. “They became a closed community,” explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of Göettingen.
Victims of Hussein’s Regime
Iraqi Yazidi women who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, sit at a school where they are taking shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq’s other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.
After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.
For now, KRG militia fighters, known as the Peshmerga, are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Peshmerga lines. “The Yazidis are terrorized,” he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.
With the help of U.S. air support, the Peshmerga vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. “It’s difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq,” says Allison. “The struggle is truly existential.”

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