Everything You Need To Know About The Yazidis, The Iraqi Ethnic Group Targeted By ISIS

The Yazidis fled to a remote area in northern Iraq after they became targets of the hyper-militant group. ISIS considers the Yazidis devil worshippers and incompatible with an Islamic state.

Thousands of Iraqi Yazidis were stranded on a remote mountain in Iraq Thursday. In response, the U.S. began humanitarian aid drops. Here's what you need to know about the ethnic minority group those drops are designed to save.

The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority living mostly in northern Iraq.

The Yazidis live in a semiautonomous part of northern Iraq with the Kurds, but see themselves as distinct from their Kurdish neighbors. The Kurds, on the other hand, see the Yazidis as Kurdish.

Yazidis mostly speak Kurdish, a language in the Iranian group. They number between 500,000 and 600,000 in Iraq and about 700,000 worldwide. The Yazidi people have a strict caste system.

There are also Yazidi communities outside of Iraq in Germany, among other places.

The Yazidis practice a religion that draws from numerous traditions.

The religion is a monotheistic, non-Abrahamic faith. Its influences date back thousands of years and include elements of Christianity, Sufi Islam and, notably, Zoroastrianism — an ancient Persian faith. The Yazidi belief system also incorporates parts of ancient Roman and Assyrian religions.

The Yazidi religion is primarily oral, rather than scriptural.

Sheik Adi bin Musafir is a venerated and pivotal figure among Yazidis — and is sometimes characterized as the sect's founder — and lived during the 12th century. His tomb in the northern Iraqi city of Lalish is now a pilgrimage site. Religious practices are diverse in the Yazidi religion and include things like circumcision and baptism. Other practices range from not eating lettuce or pumpkin, among other foods, to restrictions on women cutting their hair, the timing of marriage, and an array of other things. They believe in reincarnation, and fire carries special significance.

Outsiders have called the Yazidis "devil worshippers," though it's really more complicated than that label implies.

Malak Taus (there are many English spellings of his name), or the Peacock Angel, is a central figure in the Yazidi religion. He is considered a fallen angel — like Lucifer in Christianity — of ambivalent moral orientation, but one who ultimately repented and returned to God.

Malak Taus is especially important for understanding the current conflict because other religions — Islam, Christianity — have viewed him as the devil, consequently earning the Yazidi a reputation as devil worshippers. The issue is complicated, however, because Yazidis think of Malak Taus differently than the way other religions see the devil. For example, in 2007 a Yazidi spokesman living in Germany told a Telegraph reporter his people do "not worship evil, we just see that the world contains good as well as bad. Darkness as well as light."

The Iraqi constitution specifically mentions the Yazidis in its section on religious freedom. In an address Thursday night, President Obama called the Yazidis "a small, ancient religious sect."

ISIS is targeting Yazidis for both their religion, and because it wants their territory.

ISIS considers the Yazidis devil worshippers and therefore incompatible with the goal of establishing their version of an Islamic state.

However, ISIS also is making gains for the first time into Kurdish territory. The militant group captured the town of Sinjar on Aug. 3, marking the first time they had overrun the Kurdish forces that defend the semiautonomous region. The Iraqi military will support the Kurds, but that hasn't stopped ISIS from targeting the Yazidi.

In his address Thursday, Obama said ISIS has "called for the systemic destruction for the entire Yazidi people."

Thousands of Yazidis fled ISIS this week and took refuge on Sinjar mountain.

After ISIS took the town of Sinjar, there were reports that the militants were executing Yazidis and blowing up their shines. As a result, tens of thousands fled to the nearby Sinjar Mountains where they hoped ISIS would not pursue them. Estimates put the number of Yazidis hiding out in the mountains at anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000. The United Nations reported that there were 25,000 children among the refuges.

Once on the mountain, the fleeing Yazidis began to die from lack of food and water.

Yazidis have suffered persecution in the past.

Violence against Yazidis goes back centuries. Various Muslim leaders have issued fatwas against the Yazidis since the 12th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Yazidis suffered through 72 separate massacres at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. And In 1831, Turkish armies killed 100,000 Yazidi.

Al-Qaeda also has called the Yazidi infidels and in 2007 hundreds were killed in a series of bombings.

Skip to footer