As the militant group called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) battles Iraqi government and Kurdish forces for supremacy of Iraq, the relatively tiny Yazidi community has been left stranded in a humanitarian crisis amid talk of “genocide” against them.
As many as 40,000 civilians, many of whom are Yazidi, are currently trapped on the barren top of Mount Sinjar, humanitarian agencies told The Washington Post on Tuesday. There, the civilians face a grim choice between engaging the ISIS army and starvation or dehydration if they remain.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund, told The Post. “There is no water, there is no vegetation; they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
Prince Tahseen Said, “the world leader of the Yazidis,” and other Yazidi leaders have been left begging for help from world leaders.
“I ask for aid and to lend a hand and help the people of Sinjar areas and its affiliates and villages and complexes which are home to the people of the Yazidi religion. I invite [you] to assume [your] humanitarian and nationalistic responsibilities towards them and help them in their plight and the difficult conditions in which they live today,” Said wrote in an appeal to the region’s leaders, as well as Europe, the U.N., and the U.S., according to The New Yorker.
In an impassioned speech Tuesday, Vian Dakheel, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, took things a step further. Collapsing in tears, she directly said her people were facing “genocide” and would be “butchered” unless ISIS is stopped.
“As we speak there is genocide taking place against the Yazidis,” Dakheel said, according to Bloomberg News. “My people are being slaughtered!”
“Devil Worshippers” Persecuted for Centuries
There are only perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 Yazidis worldwide, according to the Encyclopædia Iranica, a collaborative academic project based at Columbia University, and they are overwhelmingly concentrated in northern Iraq. Less than 5,000 Yazidis in the U.S., the encyclopedia said.
Because of their unique religious practices, which have led to them being called one of “the region’s most enigmatic religious sects,” they are accused by some Muslims and Christians of being “devil worshippers.” However, Encyclopædia Iranica described that label as “erroneous.”
“In the Yazidi worldview, God created the world, which is now in the care of a Heptad of seven Holy Beings, often known as ‘Angels,'” the project said. “Pre-eminent among these is Ṭāʾus-ē Malak or Malak Ṭāʾus, the Peacock Angel, who is equated with Satan by outsiders. Most Yazidis find this identification highly offensive.”
This misunderstanding is partially due to the “Malak Ṭāʾus” figure’s other name, which is similar to the Koran’s word for “Satan,” according to LookLex, another encyclopedia focused on the Middle East region.
“The reason for the Yazidis reputation of being devil worshipers is connected to the other name of Malak Ta’us, Shaytan, the same name as the Koran’s for Satan,” the enyclopedia said.
These accusations of devil worship, combined with the powder keg of religious tension in the region, have left the small community of Yazidis in a vulnerable position. ISIS has a particularly brutal policy towards such religious minorities, Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told Bloomberg.
“[The militant policy of] either convert or be killed is a very powerful message,” Karasik said. “This group is going to be creating more refugee flows as it moves in different directions within the multi-ethnic structure of Iraq.”
But persecution of the Yazidis goes back centuries. As the Christian Science Monitor noted, the Ottoman Empire is said to have slaughtered hundreds of Yazidis. In the modern era, when the nearby Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites are engaged in violent conflict after the U.S. largely withdrew its military from Iraq, things have only grown worse for the Yazidis.
“Everyone considers us infidels,” Samir Babasheikh, whose father is the Yazidis’ spiritual leader, told the New York Times. “Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other even though they are both Muslims, so imagine what they will do to us, people from a completely different religion.”
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