The Yazidis are among the world’s most marginalized communities. As adherents of one of the oldest remaining religions, they continue to suffer varying degrees of persecution in their native lands in Iraq, Turkey, the KRI and Syria.
Historically, the Yazidis have suffered persecution on a large scale, having faced 74 genocidal campaigns against them throughout their history and periods of severe oppression during the past century.
Large numbers of Yazidis were forced to convert during the Ottoman Empire. It is estimated that more than 80,000 Yazidis lived in Turkey until the 1970s, but only 350 Yazidis remain there today, the rest having fled to Western Europe. This exodus arose for a number of reasons, including persecution on the basis of religion, denial of Yazidi rights, and forced Islamization of Yazidis.
In Syria, more than 150,000 Yazidis inhabited 110 villages and towns in the Aleppo and Hasakah regions until unrest erupted in 2011. Several factors caused the Yazidi inhabitants to flee, including of course, civil war and the emergence of fundamentalist Islamist groups. But importantly, this was also the result of systematic persecution under successive governments in Syria, especially the Ba’ath party. Institutional discrimination pervaded every sphere of life for Yazidis, from being prohibited from building religious centers or practicing their faith freely, to being forced to study Islam at school. In the legal system, Yazidis were forced to follow Islamic Sharia law and their testimonies were not accepted in court. Yazidi-made products are not considered Halal and are therefore not eaten by almost all Muslims including Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.
Further, Yazidis are not allowed to obtain Syrian nationality and therefore live as foreigners despite their long history in Syria. Following the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by IS against Syria’s Yazidis, today there are fewer than 5,000 ‘free’ Yazidis remaining in the country.
Iraq and KRI
Iraq is considered the homeland of the Yazidi community, as Yazidism’s holiest sites are located in the KRI. Between 700,000 to 750,000 Yazidis lived in Iraq in 2005. By 2014, this had decreased by 200,000 and then by a further 90,000 between 2014 and 2017.
Systematic persecution of the Yazidi minority was a consistent feature under successive Iraqi governments, especially the former Baathist regime which came to power in the late 1970s. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, efforts were made to strip the Yazidi minority of their true identity, as Yazidis were formally designated as Arabs and Yazidism was considered as a sect of Sunni Islam. These policies were contrary to the views of the Yazidi community, and to historical, social, and linguistic facts. Yazidis were excluded from any political and social involvement. According to Islamic law, they were not allowed to hold any positions of authority over Muslims (such as judges, police officers, etc). Yazidi faith is considered by the majority of the Iraqi population as illegitimate; Yazidis ares falsely and commonly referred to as “devil-worshippers”, and not “People of the Book”. As a result, Yazidi religious sites are often neglected, with a lack of funding for their care and maintenance remaining an ongoing issue.
The types of discrimination against Yazidis transformed as conflicts in Iraq gave rise to new actors and new regimes. As Iraq became gripped with an increasingly violent and disparate insurgency, the Yazidis were specifically targeted by Sunni extremist groups such as Al-Qaida and IS, and like-minded groups. This culminated in full scale genocide, perpetrated by IS, from 3 August 2014 to today.