Yazidis: who are they and why is the Islamic State pursuing them?

Yazidi women take shelter at a school in the Kurdish city of Dohuk

One of Iraq's oldest and most persecuted religious minorities, the Yazidi faces yet another genocide

LAST UPDATED AT 14:47 ON Fri 8 Aug 2014

Over 40,000 Yazidis remain trapped on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq, awaiting humanitarian aid and military intervention against Islamic State militants that could "help prevent genocide".

Earlier this week, a Yazidi member of parliament in Baghdad made a tearful and passionate appeal on behalf of her people, begging the government to intervene. "An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the Earth," she said.

As one of the world's "forgotten communities" waits to be rescued, we look at this deeply misunderstood religious group and why they have been so ruthlessly persecuted.

Who are the Yazidis?

Yazidis, most of whom are ethnic Kurds, are one of Iraq's oldest religious minorities. They have been often been persecuted and threatened with extermination: the Yazidis survived 72 separate genocides under the Ottoman Empire, the New York Times reports and were ruthlessly targeted under Saddam Hussein's regime.

How many of them exist?

Estimates vary but there are believed to be about 300,000 of them within Iraq. Many more live across the broad region of Turkey, Syria and Iran, with an estimated global population of 700,000. Yazidis consider Northern Iraq, particularly areas near the besieged city of Mosul, to be their historic homeland. The rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East forced many to flee to Europe, Cale Salih writes in the New York Times.

What do they believe?

Described as "one of the most eclectic of faiths", Yazidi's posses an unusual fusion of diverse religious beliefs from Christianity and Islam and Zoroastrianism – one of the oldest religions in the word. They combine elements from Christianity such as baptism, and others, such as circumcision, from Islam.

They follow a supreme being known as Yasdan, as well as seven holy spirits or angels, and believe in reincarnation. Like many other small religions in the region, outsiders are not allowed to convert to Yazidism.

Followers of this monotheistic religion have historically been mislabelled as devil worshippers due to the veneration of a "fallen angel", one of the reasons they face such persecution.

 What are they being targeted by Islamic State?

They have been labelled infidels, or non-believers by many fundamentalist groups including the Islamic State and its predecessor Al-Qaeda. Islamic State is fighting for an Islamic caliphate and has been violently targeting other religious groups to choose between forced conversion to Islam or execution.

The extremists appear "bent on ethnic cleansing", Ishaan Tharoor writes in the Washington Post.

"Everyone considers us infidels," said Samir Babasheikh, son of Baba Sheikh, the Yazidis' spiritual leader. "Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other even though they are both Muslims, so imagine what they will do to us, people from a completely different religion." · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.