The Iraqi mountain community that President Barack Obama is racing to defend is numbered in the tens or hundreds of thousands, with roots in the 12th century and a history of persecution.
The previously obscure group is spread across northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and its members follow an unorthodox blend of Islam, Christianity and ancient Zoroastrianism, one reason they’re being targeted by militants from the Islamic State.
Attacks by U.S. warplanes against the Islamist insurgents began yesterday, after Obama invoked the need to prevent a massacre of the Yezidis. Thousands from the community have been driven from their homes and are stranded on a mountain near the Iraqi town of Sinjar at the Syrian border, where the U.S. and Turkey are seeking to deliver aid.
“They are an esoteric sect,” whose plight represents a “ compelling story” that helped spur Obama to intervene, said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The Yezidis are ethnic Kurds and their faith was founded by a sheikh in the 12th century, borrowing from the pre-Islamic Persian religion of Zoroastrianism as well as Christianity and Islam. The Yezidis believe in reincarnation, and perform baptisms with consecrated water as well as circumcisions and animal sacrifices, according to a study by Christine Allison, professor of Kurdish studies at Exeter University in the U.K.
Like other minority religions of the region, such as the Druze and the Alawis, it is not possible to convert to Yezidism, and marriage with outsiders is not permitted.
“It is an ethno-religious group, marriages are only within the group and this way you preserve the identity of the sect,” said John Esposito, director of the center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.
Estimates of the Yezidis’ numbers vary from 50,000 to 700,000, with several focusing on the range between 200,000 and 300,000, Esposito said. They have a “long history of being persecuted,” he said.
Most are in northern Iraq, in areas surrounded by territory controlled by the Islamic State, which has seized large parts of the region since June. The Sunni militants’ offensive has targeted other minorities, too, as well as Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority. Towns that have been home to Christian communities for centuries have been emptied, and thousands driven to flight.
About 100,000 Yezidis, Christians and Turkmens fled from towns and villages in Nineveh province in the past two days, and as many as 700,000 have been driven out in the past month, Kamil Amin, a spokesman for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, said by phone from Baghdad late yesterday. He said the Islamic State militants were executing men in the captured towns, while hundreds of women were captured and “treated as slaves.”
The extremists “have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute a genocide,” Obama said. “The United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”
American military planes also dropped food and water yesterday for the Yezidis, who are threatened with starvation if they stay on the mountain, or slaughter if they attempt to leave. The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF estimated that half of the group stranded on the mountains were children. Some have escaped into northern Syria or Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, with assistance from Kurdish fighters.
Amin said that at least 400 people have died from among the group stranded in the Sinjar mountains, including children who perished due to hunger or thirst.
The Yezidis’ name derives from a word that means “worshipers of god,” according to a British Broadcasting Corp. article by Diana Darke, a writer on the region.
Their supreme being is known as Yasdan, and the religion’s beliefs also feature seven angels who can reincarnate themselves in human form, according to Exeter University’s Allison. The most holy is the Malak Taus or Peacock Angel, the executor of the divine will, to whom the Yezidis pray five times a day. Malak Taus’s other name is Shaytan, which means “devil” in Arabic, giving rise to centuries of harassment based on the misconception that the Yezidis worship the devil, Darke wrote.
Persecutors of the Yezidis include the Istanbul-based Ottoman dynasty who ruled Iraq for centuries before the First World War.
Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader ousted by the 2003 U.S. invasion, “bulldozed countless Yazidi towns until there was nothing left but gravel,” and forcibly moved inhabitants into collective villages as part of a program of Arabization, according to Matthew Barber, a graduate student in near East studies at the University of Chicago, in an article on the Syria Comment website.