A refugee camp in Turkey shelters Yazidis. Photo: Xinhua

Yazidism: the forgotten religion facing extermination at the hands of Islamic State jihadists

It's an unfortunate truism that the world pays attention to largely forgotten communities only in their moments of greatest peril.

It's an unfortunate truism that the world pays attention to largely forgotten communities only in their moments of greatest peril.

This week, the world has watched as tens of thousands of Yazidis - a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who practise a unique, syncretic faith - fled the advance through northern Iraq of Islamic State's jihadists, who have abducted and killed hundreds of this religious minority.

Ever since seizing Mosul, the forces of Islamic State have tried to transform their domain into an idealised caliphate - they have forced the conversion of religious minorities, destroyed the shrines of rival sects and butchered those they consider apostates.

This week, a Yazidi member of parliament in Baghdad appealed: "An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth."

The Yazidis globally number about 700,000 people, but most - about half a million - live in Iraq's north. The city of Sinjar was their heartland. Now, it's in the possession of extremists.

The Yazidi faith is a mix of ancient religions. Its founder was an 11th-century Umayyad sheikh whose lineage connected him to the first great Islamic dynasty.

Despite its connections to Islam, the faith remains distinct. It was one of the non-Abrahamic creeds left in the Middle East, drawing on various pre-Islamic traditions. Yazidis believe in reincarnation and adhere to a caste system. Yazidism borrows from Zoroastrianism - which held sway in what's now Iran before Islam - and even the mysteries of Mithraism, a quasi-monotheistic religion popular in the Roman Empire. Like India's Parsees - latter-day Zoroastrians - Yazidis light candles to signal the triumph of light over darkness.

Yazidis believe in one God represented by seven angels. One of the angels, Malak Tawous, was sent to earth after refusing to bow to Adam. Represented in peacock form, he is considered neither wholly good nor evil by Yazidis, but Muslims know him as Satan. Islamic State has justified its slaughter of Yazidis by claiming they are "devil worshipers".

The sect has suffered a long history of persecution. The Yazidi MP referenced 72 massacres in her people's history, ranging from Mongol rampages to the purges of the Ottomans, who often targeted the Yazidis, including during the early 20th-century massacres of Armenians.

The Yazidis' fragile existence in northern Iraq grew more delicate after the 2003 US-led invasion. In 2007, coordinated bomb blasts in a Yazidi village killed about 800 people.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Forgotten religion facing extermination