In August, Iraq’s ethnoreligious Yazidi minority marked the five years since ISIS militants overran northwestern Iraq and murdered at least 5,000 Yazidi men and boys who refused to convert to Islam and enslaved more than 7,000 women and girls who were sold off as brides and sex slaves.
An indigenous ethnic group in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the Yazidis are mainly Kurdish-speaking followers of a monotheistic religion that can be traced back to the beliefs of ancient Mesopotamia. Following the rise of ISIS, the Yazidis became the first victims of genocide by the Islamic State.
“The Yazidis are better off moving to other countries because Iraq is not safe,” a young Yazidi woman who was kidnapped, raped, and sexually abused by ISIS said after the terrorist group swept across northern Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014.
The unnamed young woman now lives in Germany where she was given asylum and where regularly visits therapists who help her overcome the trauma of her ordeal. She said that she has no desire to return home to Iraq because the threats to Yazidis, even after ISIS’ current battlefield defeat, remain high and that her community remains susceptible to discrimination and attacks.
Suicide rates are high among Iraq’s Yazidi teenagers, many of whom are young women who survived the horror of being ISIS’ captives. They continuously battle post-traumatic stress disorders and severe depression. While being held captive by ISIS militants, the victims were routinely raped, tortured, sold, called infidels, and beaten while being forced to memorise passages of the Koran.
Sam Brownback, the US envoy for religious freedom, said that, sadly, ISIS’ abuses against the Yazidis are not the only example of faith-based persecution. He added that although the world paid a great deal of lip service to put an end to future cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing, particularly in cases where the perpetrators targeted an ethnoreligious group, the systematic killing and deportation of Myanmar’s Rohingya, a Muslim minority, continues to this day.
Brownback also noted that the forced detention of more than 1 million the Uyghurs – a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, native to China’s Xinjiang Province – into reeducation camps by the Chinese Communist Party and the massacre of Jews at a synagogue in Pennsylvania, in which 11 worshippers died, is further proof that violence against religious communities around the world is on the rise.
“We’re working with like-minded countries to push the topic of religious freedom to the forefront, globally, so that we can start getting the trend line going the other way,” Brownback said while adding that tackling religious persecution is very difficult.
Experts warn that political leaders should foster a culture of tolerance, promote exchanges between different religious groups, and prosecute anyone who promotes violence against minorities.
The plight of the Yazidis, Uyghurs, Rohingyas, and others is expected to be on the agenda of the upcoming annual UN General Assembly in New York, where the world’s leaders will discuss security threats. Whether any decisions can be reached that would bring about a halt to violence against religious communities is, however, unlikely.