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.
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
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
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.”
source: nationalgeographic.com by Avi Asher-Schapiro