National Geographic News
Photo of displaced Iraqi Yazidis demonstrating demanding more aid.

Displaced Iraqi Yazidis demand more aid at the Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan on August 13, 2014.

Photograph by Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty

Avi Asher-Schapiro

for National Geographic News

Published August 9, 2014

For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq's estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. "Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community," says Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen. "Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion," she adds.

The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages.  Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.

Map of Yazidi
NG MAPS

As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth," warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.

While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.  "This dilemma to convert or die is not new," says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

A Misunderstood Religion

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq's sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq's predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was what part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While some Yazidi practices resemble those of Islam—refraining from eating pork, for example—many Yazidi practices appear to be unique in the region. Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

"To this day, many Muslims consider them to be  devil worshipers," says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. "So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions," he adds.

The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late last week.

Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by both Ottoman and local Kurdish leaders, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. "Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation," says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees.  "Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity," he says.

Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq's Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. "They became a closed community," explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of  Göettingen.

Iraqi Yazidi people who fled their homes in Sinjar, enter Iraq from Syria at a border crossing in Faysh Khabur in Dohuk Province, northern Iraq, Aug. 9, 2014.
These Yazidi people, who fled their homes in Sinjar, wait at a border crossing on August 9, 2014.
Photograph by Adam Ferguson, The New York Times/Redux

Victims of Hussein's Regime

Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq's other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.

After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.

As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minority. This week, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the KRG to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar. Some Yazidis are even fleeing into war-torn Syria, seeking the protection of Syrian Kurds in the north.

For now, these Kurdish fighters are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Iraqi Kurdish lines. "The Yazidis are terrorized," he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.

With the help of U.S. air support, the Kurds vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. "It's difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq," says Allison. "The struggle is truly existential."

35 comments
Makeit Possible
Makeit Possible

Yezdis, Zoroastrians and Jews, all have been subjected to persecution by Muslims or Christians in various part of the world for centuries. India is the only country where they have never been subjected and have always been treated well.

Chetan Lokesh
Chetan Lokesh

WHAT THE HELL....LOOK AT THE SECOND PICTURE FROM THE TOP WHICH SAYS "These Yazidis weep after an Iraqi military helicopter crashed while delivering supplies on August 12, 2014."........

IT SEEMS TO BE A PIC FROM AFRICA WITH PARTS OF AN ELEPHANT STREWN ACROSS ILLEGAL POACHING MAY BE ..BUT DEFINITELY NOT FROM THE CRASH...I MAY BE WRONG...BTW..RECOGNISE THE ELEPHANT TRUNK AND PART OF ITS LEG..

Sara Raiszadeh
Sara Raiszadeh

I am from Iran and a Zoroastrian. It's so painful to be under tyranny in your own homeland. I read this article and wanted to state that Mithraism is not originally Easter European. It is also Persian origin.

Citing from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/386080/Mithraism

More sources of info. can also be provided...

Praying for peace...

Gustad Kadwa
Gustad Kadwa

They are Zoroastrians from Persia, now Iran, some 2000 years ago. They flee from Persia (King Daraius dynesty) to save their religion. Many Zoros flee to India to save the religion, some converted to Islam and some flee to neighbouring countries and adopted chriastianity - but in heart they still have Zoros faith. Zoros pray Fire, Air, Water, Sun. They do not allow conversion so not much scope of marrying within so they merry outside and their population is dwindling. Zoroastrian religion is still well and alive in India (Mumbai mainly). Good topic for National Geographic Magazine to cover.

Brian Jones
Brian Jones

satan is smiling at the way humanity is destroying itself. we are all on one planet. theres nowhere for us to go but here or die and go to wherever our religion tells us we will be after death.

Warren Duclos
Warren Duclos

Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and now Yazidis.  With Jews and Christians already driven out. Isn't it time to admit that the construct that is called Iraq, made after WWI, is just not going to work? Like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and others, such disparate peoples and tribes that hate each other and intend to eliminate each other, one way or another, can't be called a country just because we decide it is convenient to us. Can someone educate me as to why we keep saying "Iraqis" when there is really no such people?

Mazhar Kamangar
Mazhar Kamangar

This war and violent assassination is not the whole issue, and it does not finish in Iraq and Kurdish people will not the only men who suffering  or dying, this is a kind of insane idea this is a cancer this is the evil, remember Afghanistan and Taliban. They come to us ... sooner or later, our support to those poor and innocent people is supporting our future and our youth and children. 

Ronald West
Ronald West

I would, however inconveniently, respectfully notice that, had not the USA undermined Assad in Syria, the Yazidi not be facing this boomerang in Iraq. Amazing how short term the memory and shortsighted the perspective of the American geopolitical strategists.

Recalling Einstein (paraphrased) 'the mentality that created the problem is incapable of solving the problem' it should be a no-brainer another 'regime change' (Malaki) is only going to contribute to a civil war where 'inclusiveness' engineered by the USA in search for stability in the crumbling Iraqi institutions of government is more than far-fetched, it's a cosmetic fantasy.

At this point, I think it is fair to say 'democracy' has killed more Syrians and Iraqis, by far, than Assad and Saddam, left alone, ever would have. But THERE DOES seem to be a method to the madness:

http://ronaldthomaswest.com/2014/05/26/counterfeit-coin/

^ Economics and counter-insurgency, in an interdependent relationship, are at the core of 'humanitarian violence.' Bombing under the pretext of protecting the Yazidi is beyond cynical, it is absolutely disingenuous.

Dr Bob Rhoda
Dr Bob Rhoda

I'm sorry.  There was a typo in that.  I meant to say, "HOWEVER, the U.S. can not ASSIMILATE every persecuted nationality, individual and ethnic group. 

Dr Bob Rhoda
Dr Bob Rhoda

My heart goes out for the Yazidis people and all persecuted religions and ethnic groups around the world.  We need to remember how BLESSED we are because we live in the U.S.

HOWEVER, the U.S. can not every persecuted nationality, individual and ethnic group.  We simply don't have the capacity.  We should do what we can but as individuals not as national policy.  In addition.other nations need to step up to assist groups like this. 

Suzanne Thomadella
Suzanne Thomadella

All religions are man-made and harmful. There are literally thousands of religions, each claiming it is "the real one". It's all total superstition and the sooner the world grows up and stops believing in non-existent "gods", the sooner mankind might get about the real work of loving one another. How many times have we all heard of atrocities being committed because the perpetrators claim divine permission? Oh, how sad it is that the world is now without Christopher Hitchens! May he rest in peace.

Leon Strack
Leon Strack

The yazidi religion is more than 4000 years old. They celebrate an event similar to christmas. Also they celebrate easter. It is said, that the painting of easter egg is a tradition that we inherited from the yazidi, along time ago.


They also have some awesome parts in there creation story " God had a white pearl, one day the pearl shattered and from the splinter the whole universe with all the elements (galaxies, planets) was created" Sounds very similar to the big bang theory.


They also knew thousands years ago that the planets are orbiting the sun, and not the other way. They had a garment with buttons around the neck, the buttons symbolized the planets and the head was the sun. They sun is very important to the yazidi.


I know some yazidi, they are the most friendly and nicest people i ever meet.

Hawa Sito
Hawa Sito

1 tiny but very important mistake written in the text is that Tausi Melek disobeyed God. Tausi melek did NOT disobey God. Tausi Melek was given a choice(was tested by God) and was/is God's favorite angel. God wanted to see if the seven angels(Tausi Melek was one of them)  would bow for another creature, in this case Adam the first man,Tausi Melek said he would only bow to God. Thus God made him the ruler of the mortal world.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

I had thought this situation was just an excuse to rejoin war in Iraq but clearly it's something else.  It's looking like nothing can stop the ISIS movement but full blown war in the Middle East.  

VArun Rajan
VArun Rajan

yazidi religion is much similarity with hindu religion of east.


1) if we talk about peacock angel,peacock is not a indeginious to
middle east,this bird is native of indian subcontinent.
2) in a hindu religion ,peacock is consider as secret bird,it is
associated with cult in hinduism.

3) like hindu ,yazidi also follow strick Caste System,and inter caste marriage
are not allowed.

4) both hin du and yazidi believe in rebirth and reincarnation

5) both hindu`s and yazidi`s temple are in pyramid structure.


since yazidi people are living along muslim,christian and zoroastianism thousand year so their culture and religion infuence is also seen in them.

Therese Fennessy
Therese Fennessy

Is it not a basic human right to hold one's own religious views and beliefs ?

All of us carry responsibility to accept each other without malice regardless of culture,race or creed. Will our human race ever learn the basics of decency and humanity. These people need so much NOW.

Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

Leave them folks alone, at least they believe in God............ Not everyone can say that!

Jack Stermer
Jack Stermer

Ever ask yourself why the world's Sunni leadership hasn't expressed outrage at what the ISSI are doing? Could it be for the same reason the world's Christian religions kept silent while the Nazis brutalized the Jews? 

Roxanne Roxanadanna
Roxanne Roxanadanna

The world should offer refuge to this persecuted people, for they are in danger of extermination.

Donald Dean
Donald Dean

@Chetan Lokesh Had the same thought. Makes you wonder if the Editor even looked at the page to make sure it was correct before it was posted online.

Christian Burgess
Christian Burgess

@Warren Duclos "Can someone educate me as to why we keep saying "Iraqis" when there is really no such people?"

Same could be said about usa, australia, south africa etc ... 

Amit Sanyal
Amit Sanyal

@Dr Bob Rhoda India has settled thousands of persecuted minorities for centuries because of its majority dharmic (Vedantic) culture. If Yazidism is indeed rooted in "Mithraism", then the Yazidis may be related to the ancient Mittanians who originated in India and I am sure they would be welcome in India. Indra, Mitra and Varuna were Vedic gods. Even Zarathustra's birth was within the confines of ancient India, which included Gandhara and Balkh regions of present day Afghanistan. For several centuries of world history, of which Americans learn and know precious little, most of the world's citizens would have felt BLESSED to be born and live in India.  


The desert (semitic) cultures of the middle east, however, have produced dangerous, genocide-causing "religions" like islam and christianity, which have offered nothing good to humanity. India did not know of violence in the name of religion prior to islam's advent, although it had been ruled by Hindus, Buddhists and Zoarastrians. It seems that these genocide-causing religions and their followers will not rest until they have annihilated one another. And that might actually be a good thing to happen, one that would make Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Zarathustra smile! 

Rebaz Ghazi
Rebaz Ghazi

@Dr Bob Rhoda Be strategic, see the future! The very help that the US offers today, which means much more for the desperate than you can imagine, brings prosperity to your country much more than you can imagine. I am Kurdish, I know how important it is to be rescued by the US.   

Patti Maslinoff
Patti Maslinoff

@Suzanne Thomadella  Created by human beings, religion reflects both the beneficial and harmful aspects of humans.  Yes, there have been atrocities committed by people who claim divine permission.  There have also been atrocities committed by people who do not claim divine permission.  Eliminating religion does not change the basic nature of human beings   Without religion, people will still commit atrocities.

With thousands of religions, not all religions are focused on gods.  Not all religious people claim that their religion is the real one.


Religion is also about values.  Obviously, you value the concept that humankind should work at loving one another.  That is not what I value.  I believe that humankind should work at respecting one another.  The emphasis on "love" is more reflective of Christian values.  Even without any gods or superstition, people have different values and for many people, values are expressed through religion.


Finally, if you believe that religion and superstition should be eliminated, then I don't understand what you mean by the statement "May he rest in peace."  Can anyone "rest in peace" after death if there is no life after death?  Does this mean that there is a soul that exists after death?  Why would anyone not "rest in peace"?  Is it because there are spirits to disturb one's existence after death?

Hawa Sito
Hawa Sito

I ment to write defy which can be interpreted as disobey.

Roxanne Roxanadanna
Roxanne Roxanadanna

@Therese Fennessy The right to life is ever more precious than the right to religious freedom; it is the right to life that is being squandered in the attempt to destroy them. The right to not be a slave is also more important than the right to religious freedom; the Yazidi are being sold into bondage

Ermin de Winkel
Ermin de Winkel

@Carter Fox Jr. Most killings and murders have been committed in the name of some deity, it be Allah, God, JHWH or other. In this it is more humane not to believe.

Dave Wilson`
Dave Wilson`

@Carter Fox Jr. Are you saying that it's okay to kill and/or persecute atheists and agnostics?

Ronan Collins
Ronan Collins

all civilians and children should be protected in conflicts...there is little difference between christian inaction to protect jews in world war two or jewish failure to protect civilian gazain palestinians or sunni militants to protect the civilian populations of syria or iraq . but when war is fought for god or gods chosen people or the master race our humanity is lost ....."God wants peace , God wants war, God wants famine , God wants chain stores ...What God wants God gets , God help us all" - roger waters

Kerry Ferguson
Kerry Ferguson

@Ermin de Winkel @Carter Fox Jr.  Respectfully... you are repeating a myth.  Most killings in history have to do with nationalism, resources, imperialism, power, and other human motives.  Genghis Khan, Japanese imperialism, WWI and WWII, Stalinist and Maoist utopias, Alexander the Great, Chinese dynastic changes, African tribal conflicts, on and on... all killed hundreds of millions not to convert others to a religion but because of human greed and the need to control.

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