The Iraqi ethnic and religious minority descends from some of the region’s most ancient roots and face executions for a reputation as ‘devil worshippers’.
Reports that Islamic militants have trapped up to 40,000 members of Iraq’s minority communities have spurred the US into considering a military-led humanitarian action.
Most of the trapped people are members of the Yazidi religion, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities. They were forced to flee to Mount Sinjar in the Iraqi north-west region, or face slaughter by an encircling group of Islamic State (Isis) jihadists. The UN has said that roughly 40,000 people – many women and children – have taken refuge in nine locations on the mountain, “a craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark”.
Gruesome images of brutally slain people have emerged in the past week, as local officials say that at least 500 Yazidis, including 40 children, have been killed, and many more have been threatened with death. Roughly 130,000 residents of the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar have fled to Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, or to Irbil.
Reports of violence, repression and murder by Isis and other extremist groups have become increasingly prevalent in Iraq. Christians have also been targeted for their faith. The country’s largest Christian city was all but abandoned on Thursday, as Isis advanced through minority communities in the north-west.
On Thursday, the UNSC condemned the Isis attacks on the Yazidi community, saying those responsible could face trial for crimes against humanity.
A historically misunderstood group, the Yazidis are predominantly ethnically Kurdish, and have kept alive their syncretic religion for centuries, despite many years of oppression and threatened extermination.
The ancient religion is rumoured to have been founded by an 11th century Ummayyad sheikh, and is derived from Zoroastrianism (an ancient Persian faith founded by a philosopher), Christianity and Islam. The religion has taken elements from each, ranging from baptism (Christianity) to circumcision (Islam) to reverence of fire as a manifestation from God (derived from Zoroastrianism) and yet remains distinctly non-Abrahamic. This derivative quality has often led the Yazidis to be referred to as a sect.
At the core of the Yazidis’ marginalization is their worship of a fallen angel, Melek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel, one of the seven angels that take primacy in their beliefs. Unlike the fall from grace of Satan, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Melek Tawwus was forgiven and returned to heaven by God. The importance of Melek Tawwus to the Yazidis has given them an undeserved reputation for being devil-worshippers – a notoriety that, in the climate of extremism gripping Iraq, has turned life-threatening.
Under Ottoman rule in the 18th and 19th centuries alone, the Yazidis were subject to 72 genocidal massacres. More recently in 2007, hundreds of Yazidis were killed as a spate of car bombs ripped through their stronghold in northern Iraq. With numbers of dead as close to 800, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent, this was one of the single deadliest events to take place during the American-led invasion.
The Yazidis had been denounced as infidels by Al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor of Isis, which sanctioned their indiscriminate killing.
Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi MP in Iraq, broke down in tears on Wednesday, as she called on the parliament and the international community to “Save us! Save us!” from Isis.