Yazidi families are fleeing the bloodshed and violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar.
Yazidi families are fleeing the bloodshed and violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. Getty: SAFIN HAMED

Islamic militants have reportedly executed 300 families from the minority Yazidi group. But who are they and why are they being persecuted?

The Yazidi are considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims, and their beliefs have made them the target of hatred for thousands of years.

Iraq has an estimated 500,000 Yazidis.

"Extermination, emigration and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion," Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen told National Geographic.

In Sinjar, Islamic State militants (formerly known as Isis) destroyed a Shiite shrine and demanded that the remaining population convert to their version of Islam, pay a religious tax or be executed. An estimated 40,000 Yazidi fled the city before it was captured by Islamic State forces.

With the capture of Sinjar, home to the oldest and biggest Yazidi community, the Islamic militants are forcing the Yazidi to convert, face execution or flee the area. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the Earth," said Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi leader.

Accounts have emerged in the past week of people brutally slain, with local officials reporting that at least 500 Yazidis, including 40 children, have been killed, and many more still in mortal danger.

Roughly 130,000 residents of the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar have fled to Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, or to Irbil.

The Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking ethno-religious community who practice an ancient religion linked to Zoroastrianism.
The Yazidi is a Kurdish-speaking religious community who practice an ancient religion linked to Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia

"This dilemma to convert or die is not new," says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood.

"Many Muslims consider them to be devil worshippers," says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert of Kurdish politics at the University of Vienna. "So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions."

The Yazidis are one of the world's smallest and oldest religious minorities. Their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect that draws from Christianity, Judaism, the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism and early Mesopotamian cults.

Yazidis worship one God and honour seven angels. Unlike Muslims and Christians, they reject the idea of sin, the devil and hell itself.

They believe in "holy beings" and the chief archangel is Melek Taus, the "Peacock Angel".

In Zoroastrian-like tradition, the Peacock Angel embodied humanity's potential for both good (light) and bad (dark) acts. Some followers of other monotheistic religions mistakenly equate the Peacock Angel with Satan.

Anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by the leaders of Kurdish principalities under Ottoman control, 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."