BAGHDAD, Iraq — As the militant Islamic group ISIS continues to gain territory in Iraq, the country’s religious minorities are forced to flee. Those most affected are Christians and Yazidis, who if captured must make the decision to convert or die.
The U.N. Security Council called an emergency session to discuss the most recent seizure of territory by ISIS—territory that includes Iraq’s largest dam. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes by subsequent water and electricity shortages. The insurgents also invaded and overwhelmed several predominantly Christian towns in the area.
When the Islamic militants captured the enclave of Qaraqosh, over 15,000 Christian Iraqis were forced to flee. “A Kurdish commander came and told me, ‘We can’t hold the town, so we’re going to retreat’,” said Yohanna Petros Moshe, archbishop of Mosul. “The Kurdish leadership informed the people that they had to get out.”
The invasions came with little warning for Christian families, who were driven from their homes without a chance to gather any possessions. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called it a “callous disregard” for human rights. The Kurdistan Regional Government called for support and aid to fight back against the hostilities of ISIS, yet no international intervention has been staged so far; Amnesty International claims that it is impossible to enter or provide aid to areas under ISIS control.
Conditions have also devolved for Iraq’s Yazidi population, 40,000 of whom have been stranded in the Sinjar Mountains since early August without food, water or shelter. They were forced to flee their homes or face massacre by an approaching group of ISIS jihadists. Recently, images have circulated of Yazidis slain for their faith, and local officials estimate that 500 Yazidis—including 40 children—have been killed.
A wave of 150,000 refugees, most of whom are Yazidi, have sought protection across northern Iraq, as well as in Turkey and Syria. “Our resources are stretched and we are under so much pressure because the needs are so immense,” said Julie Touma, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Erbil. “We’re talking about a massive exodus of children who became displaced, who fall ill, who die needlessly.” She is disturbed that ISIS harbors such wrath towards Iraq’s minorities.
Yazidis have for centuries been misunderstood as heretical devil worshipers by Muslims, and as such have been the targets of violence countless times. Yet given the capture of Sinjar, the extremists of ISIS possess the capabilities to destroy the Yazidi religion permanently. “Sinjar is—hopefully not was—home to the oldest, biggest and most compact Yazidi community,” said Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Gottingen. “Extermination, emigration and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religions.”
Kurds throughout northern Iraq are attempting to defend the victimized minority group, but there have been reports of panic setting in among the Yazidi community. Because of their tradition of isolation—both due to geography and discrimination by outside forces—members rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and the religion itself does not accept converts. This has left the population especially vulnerable to ISIS’ current offensives, and it remains unlikely that Yazidism could continue to exist if all members fled northern Iraq.
“Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth,” said Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil. It can only be hoped that Kurdish forces will be able to reclaim Sinjar and establish safety for members of all religions within the region.
– Mari LeGagnoux