If freedom of religious belief is a fundamental human right, then surely no people is more deserving of universal sympathy and support than the persecuted Yazidis. With a long history behind them of victimization and oppression under Ottoman rule – more than 70 genocidal massacres are on record – in recent years their maltreatment has, if anything, intensified.
The Yazidis are a minority religious sect within the Kurdish nation. Almost all Kurds adhere to Sunni Islam; the Yazidis, although ethnically Kurdish, have preserved their own religious beliefs over the centuries. The Yazidi religion, dating back to the 11th century, is said to be derived from the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, founded some 3,500 years ago by the prophet Zoroaster, perhaps better known as Zarathustra. Like those of many ancient sages, Zarathustra’s beliefs have echoed down the centuries. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was the title of a 19th century philosophical novel by Friedrich Nietzsche, and later of a tone poem by Richard Strauss which became the theme music for Stanley Kubrick’s iconic science-fiction movie: “2001 – A Space Odyssey”.
Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith which is not Abrahamic, but the Yazidis have incorporated into it elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The religious persecution that the Yazidis have been subjected to derives from their worship of Melek Tawwus, or the Peacock Angel, one of seven angels central to their beliefs. Its importance to the Yazidis led to their being dubbed “devil worshippers”, and to have led in the past to massacres. In post-Saddam Iraq, Al-Qaeda denounced Yazidis as infidels and slaughtered them in their hundreds. To Islamic State (IS) their mere existence was like a red rag to a bull.
Although the Yazidis had once inhabited a wide area stretching across eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran, by 2014 only the community in Iraq was still numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Most lived in two areas: Sheikhan, a collection of villages and towns to the northeast of Mosul, and Sinjar, a mountain area close to the border with Syria.
It was in June 2014 that IS formally declared the establishment of a “caliphate” – a state to be ruled by God’s deputy on earth, or caliph, in accordance with Sharia law. It demanded that Muslims across the world swear allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In its first months IS appeared unstoppable, conquering huge swathes of territory. In Syria and Iraq. On August 2, 2014, IS forces captured the city and region of Sinjar.
Yazidi civilians were told to convert to Islam immediately or be killed. More than 100,000 fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar. The UN said that they ended up in nine locations on the mountain, a craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark.
Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up. Many of the men were massacred. Thousands of Yazidis were either executed and thrown into pits, or died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion on the mountain. According to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, well over 6,000 Yazidis – mostly women and children – were enslaved and transported to IS prisons or military training camps. Some were conveyed to the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were locked away, raped and beaten, or sold. By mid-2016, an estimated 2,590 women and children had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate while 3,793 remained in captivity, many as suspected sex slaves to IS members.
The crisis is so bad that Yazidi clerics have amended their religious law to accept these girls back despite their having been raped, and to erase the shame on their families, which traditionally could have resulted in the girl being killed by her own family members. If any of the girls or women become pregnant, the Yazidi religion now permits them to have an abortion.
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The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has compelled thousands of Yazidis to seek asylum in Europe and beyond. According to some estimates, 70,000 people, or about 15% of the Yazidi population in Iraq, fled the country. Some 25,000 are reported to have settled in Germany.
Now upwards of 500,000 Yazidi are in refugee camps across the Kurdish region. Their homeland, the villages in the Sinjar district, has been completely destroyed. In the camps they are facing ethnic and religious oppression, as soldiers and local aid workers deny them the collective opportunity to recover as a community.
To survive, the Yazidis need a refuge. So full marks to the organization calling itself “Yazidis International” (YI), working out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Dedicated to educating the public about the Yazidis and the crisis they are facing, it implements a variety of projects aimed at to preserving the Yazidi faith and culture, while working to empower the Yazidi community worldwide. In particular it is lobbying Congress to ease the immigration of Yazidis into the US.
YI is supported by national and international faith groups and interfaith groups in the US, Canada and around the world. Commercial organizations and banks have signed up to support its work. It is in collaboration with the UN body IAHV (the International Association for Human Values), with the Iraqi humanitarian group “Humanity,” which has been delivering immediate help to Yezidis in need. It is also in a working partnership with HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the US organization founded in response to the late 19th- and early 20th-century exodus of Jewish emigrants from Russia, but still very much alive and kicking.
Justice for the crimes Yazidis suffered, including sexual enslavement, has so far proved elusive. Nor is the persecution and killing by any means over. “The genocide is ongoing,” said officials of the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry on August 3, 2017, “and remains largely unaddressed by the international community, despite the obligation of states … to prevent and to punish the crime.”
One Yazidi man put the situation is more graphic terms.
“The Yazidis’ wound is still bleeding,” he said, at a ceremony attended by several thousand people including the mayor and other local dignitaries, held at a temple at the foot of the mountain that dominates Sinjar. “The Kurds and the Iraqi government are fighting for Sinjar and we are paying the price.”