The Yezidi Sect: ISIS Targets for Death

06/10/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

(Co-authored by Christopher Bilardi, an expert on the Yezidi faith and an associate member of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.)

Until the tragedy that came early in August 2014, the people who call themselves the Dâseni were little known to Westerners. These are the Yezidis, who mainly live in Iraq. Reviled as "devil worshippers" for centuries by their Muslim and Christian neighbors, they have endured 72 attempted genocides since 630 CE. After the predations of the "Islamic State" that number has increased to 74.

A Kurdish people in ethnicity, the Yezidis practice a distinctive religion that is neither Christian nor Muslim. Tradition states that it is one of the oldest in the world, and that they have been a presence in Mesopotamia "for more than 6,700 years." During that long span of time Yezidism has incorporated elements of other faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim (Sufism), Zoroastrian, and Mandaean Gnostic. Like Hindus, the Yezidis have a caste system. Their tradition is hereditary and does not allow converts.

Most Muslims do not regard them as "People of the Book" since their traditions are oral, although some Iranians describe them as such based on their link to Zoroastrianism. Their apparent non-scriptural status is changing, however, as their core oral 'texts' (hymns or qawls) are written down "effectively transforming Yezidism into a scriptural religion," according to a Yezidi source.

The Yezidis describe themselves as monotheists believing in one true God. Their theology is based on the emanations of God in the form of seven archangels or the heft sirr (the Seven Mysteries). Chief of these is the archangel Tawuse Melek, the Peacock Angel often conflated by Christians and Muslims with Satan or Iblis. Yezidis pray three to five times a day in the direction of the sun, which is symbolic of God's energy and truth. Unlike conventional Muslims, who prohibit any belief in incarnation (hulul), Yezidis believe all the heft sirr, with the exception of Tawuse Melek, have been incarnated on earth as various holy people or saints.

The main Yezidi saint is Sheikh 'Adî ibn Mustafa, said to be of Umayyad descent, from the Beka'a Valley of Lebanon. He settled in Lalish in the Kurdish area of Iraq early in the 12th century CE, and died circa 1162 CE. He is said to have learned from the outstanding Sufis Ahmad al-Ghazali and 'Abd al-Qadir Gilani. At his death two groups formed: one went to Egypt and Syria and continued his Sufi body of disciples or tariqa (path). The other (mostly from his family) stayed in the Kurdish multireligious area and formed the basis of the Yezidi Sheikh caste.

Prior to recent events it was estimated that the Yezidi population ranged from 750,000 to 1,000,000.

Ten thousand Yezidis have died at the hands of the so-called "Islamic State" or ISIS since August 3, 2014. On that day ISIS attacked and seized the region where they lived after Kurdish fighters (Peshmerga) withdrew for unknown reasons. The fall of Sinjar (Shingal) led to the flight of all Yezidis from the Sinjar District; 150,000 went to the territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and 250,000 were trapped on Mt. Sinjar.

ISIS murdered approximately 3,000 Yezidis and abducted 6,500 and sold 4,500 women and girls into sexual slavery. ISIS approves of slavery. 186,000 children have been displaced.

Donatella Rivera, Amnesty International Senior Crisis Response Advisor, says "Many of those held as sexual slaves are children - girls 14, 15 or even younger. ISIS fighters are using rape as a weapon in attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity." Yezidi women and girls have been forcibly married, sold, or given as "gifts" to ISIS fighters and supporters, often forced to convert to ISIS doctrine. Many girls have committed suicide.

Yezidi boys are held at military training camps in Raqqa, Syria, the "capital" of the spurious ISIS "caliphate," and at Tal Afar, in Iraq's Mosul province. It is estimated that 600-700 children are still missing. Boys between the ages of eight and 15 are given military training and forced to watch decapitations: "This is your initiation into jihad," one boy was told. "You are an Islamic State boy now."

According to Francesca Pizzutelli, also writing for Amnesty International, more than two million Iraqis were displaced during 2014. 950,000 are now in KRG. Most are Yezidis from the Sinjar region.

The KRG built camps, hosting 430,000 displaced people. The camps are in poor condition, lacking weatherized tents, and including washing and toilet facilities that "do not meet minimum standards for humanitarian response," according to Amnesty International.

Despite the mounting horrors, the Yezidis are not without their supporters. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, writing in The Huffington Post, under the title " 'Never Again' Should Include Endangered Yazidis"), made a powerful case for common ground with Yezidi suffering. On April 15-16, 2015 -- Yom Ha-Shoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance -- his declaration appeared: "But more than any other group," Rabbi Cooper wrote, "it is the plight of the Yazidis that evokes the memory of Nazi brutality: That of a victim stripped of everything: rights, possessions, clothing, relatives, food, liberty, and the ultimate indignity of the loss of voice."

A new organization, Canadian Jews and Friends of Yezidis, was formed in August 2014. A key member is a Yezidi representative, Mirza Ismail, who lives in the Toronto area. Rananah Goldhar, one of the founding members, said, "I struggled with getting involved, but finally God answered my question: How can I ... be involved with the Yezidi effort? And God answered that you cannot be a Jew without weeping and running to help the Yezidis." CJFY is petitioning the Canadian Parliament to provide military assistance and bring refugees to Canada.

A Yezidi artist, Ammar Salim, evokes the tragedies and outrages suffered by his people. He lives in a small apartment after fleeing his home in Bashiqa for sanctuary in the KRG. He draws inspiration from the atrocities committed by IS. His work has attracted attention and has led to death threats: "I receive threats via Facebook. They sent me a message: 'If you do not burn the painting, we will kill you. We know where to find you.'"

Another Yezidi artist, film maker Nawzad Shekhany, created "The Black Massacre," a short documentary highlighting the suffering of the Yezidi people.

In the West we live comfortable lives, and we give lip service to humanitarian sentiments. Yet, the world is getting smaller and genocidal campaigns are happening now - and not only to Yezidis. Groups such as the ISIS must no longer be allowed to use God as a cover for their evil.