Who are Iraq’s Yazidis and why is the Islamic State targeting them?

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By Samyukta Maindarkar | dna Webdesk

Over 50,000 people from the little-known Yazidi sect are trapped in Iraq’s Sinjar mountains, fleeing persecution by the Islamic State.

Pictures posted on the Internet by members of the Yazidi community show clusters of people gathered atop a craggy canyon. Legend has it that this was where Noah’s Ark settled after the biblical flood.

If the Yazidis descend from the Sinjar mountains, they almost certainly face death at the hands of the jihadists. If they stay, they risk being starved into extinction. On Thursday, the United States began air drops of food and water into Iraq to save this ethnic minority group from thirst and starvation, the only means of getting supplies to these stranded people.

For thousands of years, the Yazidi have lived in and around present-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey, mostly concentrated around northern Iraq in the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Estimates vary, but they are thought to number between 500,000 and 600,000 in Iraq. A significant number has also migrated abroad and the largest group outside of Iraq lives in Germany. In Iraq, they mostly speak Kurdish, and are impoverished farmers and herders.

The Yazidis’ religion is based on a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian faith deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, but also including elements from Christianity and Islam. They worship God and his seven angels, the most important one to their religion being Melek Taus, or the Peacock Angel. However, Orthodox Muslims see the peacock as a demonic figure. As a result of this and the fact that some of the Yazidis’ beliefs and practices, like refraining from eating lettuce or wearing the colour blue, are seen as Satanic, the Yazdis have been branded as “devil-worshippers”.

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Having declared an Islamic Caliphate, the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, ISIL/ISIS) are now intent on targeting all religions and religious minorities in Iraq so as to purify it and purge it of all non-Islamist influences. They have given all non-Muslims in the region a choice: convert to Islam, pay a fine or a tax, leave, or die.

Apart from religion, the other intention of the Islamic State is to capture territory. As a result, the existence of the Yazidis on their own ancestral land is critically endangered. Though the Kurdish peshmerga have opened safe passages to evacuate the Yazidi, thousands are still stranded in the Sinjar mountains.

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Last week, AFP reported that a Yazidi lawmaker broke down in tears in the Iraq parliament as she urged the government and the international community to save her community from jihadists who have now overrun the Sinjar region.

“Over the past 48 hours, 30,000 families have been besieged in the Sinjar mountains, with no water and no food,” said Vian Dakhil, according to AFP. “Seventy children have already died of thirst and 30 elderly people have also died.”

Dakhil said 500 Yazidi men were killed by IS militants since they took over the town of Sinjar and surrounding villages on Sunday. Their women were enslaved as “war booty”, she said. “We are being slaughtered, our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity.”

On Saturday, Dakhil reiterated the perilous situation of the Yazidis, saying they will all die if they are not rescued immediately. “We have one or two days left to help these people. After that they will start dying en masse,” Dakhil told AFP. “If we cannot give them hope now — the (Kurdish) peshmerga, the United Nations, the government, anybody — their morale will collapse completely and they will die.”

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Khodhr Domli, a Yazidi rights activist, told AFP, “Those people are fighting for their lives in the mountains… They are in mortal danger, the entire community is in mortal danger.”

International aid organisations and NGOs have added their pleas to save these people.

“Any delay in saving the people of Sinjar will double their suffering, will contribute to increased violence and will encourage Daash to expand its brutal activities,” the Iraqi Red Crescent told AFP, insisting decisive action was urgently needed to avert an even greater tragedy.

Amnesty International told AFP, “Hundreds of civilians from Sinjar and its environs are missing, feared dead or abducted, while tens of thousands are trapped without basic necessities or vital supplies in the Sinjar Mountain area south of the city.”

For full coverage of the Iraq crisis, read here.

With inputs from various agencies.

*Originally published on dnaindia.com on August 9, 2014