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  • Who are the Yazidis and what is Yazidism?
    The Yazidis are monotheists. Traditionally, they have lived in present-day Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Northern Iraq; though today they live mostly in Iraq and as refugees abroad. Most speak a dialect of the Kurdish language. Yazidism shares much in common with other religions of the Middle East, including Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Their holiest place for pilgrimage is in Lalish, Iraq, where they believe God created humanity through the work of a divine angel - Taus Melek (symbolized by the peacock). In the 11th century, the Sufi mystic, Sheikh Adi, lived in Lalish and reformed Yazidi societal structures into the ones that exist today. For the most part, Yazidism relies on an oral, ancient wisdom tradition. Yazidis have many rituals, including baptisms in Lalish. They have a special reverence for the sun – they pray facing the sun several times a day. At the beginning of their prayers, they are obliged to pray for all other people and religious groups before presenting their own petitions to God. They believe in reincarnation and must choose a brother or sister for the afterlife from among the Sheikh class, who then accompanies them through life and into the afterlife. There is no sense of the Biblical “fall of man" in Yazidism and also no practice of sacrifice comparable to Judaism or Christianity. Instead, they have a spiritual economy of “blessing" in which the giver and receiver both participate in the blessing and the ultimate giver and receiver of the blessing is God.
  • What are other Yazidi beliefs?
    In one of their stories, Yazidis say that after creating Taus Melek and six other angels, God created humans and then asked the angels to venerate them. The others did this but Taus Melek refused to worship anyone other than God. According to Yazidis, God then praised him for his wisdom and designated him as the leader of the angels. However, because this story deals with what can be seen as an act of disobedience to God, it has often been compared to the story of the fallen angel prevalent in the scriptures and stories of Christianity and Islam. This misunderstanding has led to a false claim that Yazidis are “devil-worshippers.” This, and the fact that Yazidis do not have a written “religious book” of scripture, so are not in the Abrahamic sense, “People of the Book”, are core reasons why they have been persecuted for hundreds of years.
  • What is their history?
    For centuries, most Yazidis lived around Nineveh - the historic region known from the Biblical Book of Jonah together with Sunni Arabs, Shia Turkmen, Shabaks, Christians, and other smaller communities. Yazidis also live around Lalish, in present day Iraqi Kurdistan. Persecution of Yazidis can be traced back to the 7th century. Yazidis maintain that they have been victimized by 72 genocides, from the 600-year rule of the Ottoman Empire onwards. During the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917), Yazidis were also targeted. Many fled to the Shingal region, where they and roughly 20,000 Christians were received hospitably by the existing Yazidi population there. After the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the region where most Yazidis lived was carved up with pieces going to four countries; Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Throughout the 20th century, Yazidis were discriminated against in Turkey. By the 1980s, almost no Yazidis remained in Turkey. The situation was not much better in Iraq. When Saddam Hussein was in power, the government worked to strip Yazidis, along with all other religious and ethnic minorities, of their ethnic identity. In the 1970s, Yazidis were forced to leave their villages to live, instead, in larger communities which were far away from their ancestral farming land and holy places and where they were dependent on the state and easy to control. Although Shingal Mountain has water, the plain below it to which they were relocated has a limited supply. Consequently, much of the water had to be trucked in. Most of the community lived in a state of poverty and illiteracy. Saddam Hussein’s forced Arabization policy reached its peak in 1987-88 during the Anfal Campaign, when tens of thousands of Kurdish Muslims, Yazidis and Assyrian Christians were killed. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds worked to expand the boundaries of what they hope would be a future independent Kurdistan. This was often at the expense of Yazidis and other minorities, since they sought to have Yazidis identify as Kurdish. Because of this disregard for their unique identity, Yazidis increasingly insist on others acknowledging their distinctive ethno-religious identity. After 2003, there was a rise in radical groups who wanted control over land and the local population. Yazidi villages and shrines were repeatedly targeted and destroyed. One of the worst attacks occurred on August 14, 2007, when terrorists inflicted a devastating attack detonating four truck-bombs in the Shingali villages of Tal Azeer and Seba Sheikh Kheder. An estimated 800 people lost their lives in the attack, with another 1,500 wounded. Although no perpetrators were charged, many analysts presumed Al-Qaeda in Iraq was behind these terrorist attacks. What happened in the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis? On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded Shingal, the Yazidi homeland. They killed an estimated 5,000 men and elderly women and kidnapped at least 6,000 younger women and children. Male children were made to train as soldiers, while women and female children were raped, beaten, and sold on slave markets. All were forced to convert to Islam. Nearly 3,000 children and women who were kidnapped remain missing. Tens of thousands of Yazidis on the southern side of Shingal Mountain who managed to flee to the mountain were subsequently surrounded by ISIS for more than a week. Hundreds died of thirst and exposure before a corridor was created so that they could escape. These genocidal attacks were perpetrated by ISIS against the Yazidis on the basis of ethnicity and religion, as ISIS was attempting to rid their “caliphate” of minorities in a classic case of ethnic cleansing. The tactics utilized against the Yazidis illustrated their genocidal intent: by killing the men, forcing boys to train as soldiers for them, taking captive the women, and forcing conversion, they were attempting to ensure the eradication of the Yazidis. Young boys would be absorbed into their armies, women would convert, and when women became pregnant during their time in captivity, if they were not forced to have an abortion (which many were) the child would not be considered a Yazidi, as the Yazidi faith is endogamous (one must have two Yazidi parents to be considered a Yazidi) and because Iraqi law holds that a child’s religious and ethnic identity is that of its father rather than its mother. In all these ways, ISIS attempted to eradicate Yazidis religiously and ethnically. ISIS also explicitly stated they were seeking to destroy the Yazidis in their online communications and propaganda magazine.
  • Where are the Yazidis finding asylum worldwide?
    Nearly 200,000 Yazidis now live in Germany. Approximately 50,000 Yazidis live in Armenia, and 10,000 live in Georgia. More than 1,000 Yazidis now live in the United States, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France, respectively.
  • Why have Yazidis been unable to return to their ancestral homeland?
    Following the 2014 genocide and their initial displacement from their ancestral homeland of Shingal the region was controlled and occupied by ISIS fighters. This rendered it impossible for Yazidis to return. As the campaign against ISIS progressed throughout 2015-2018, ISIS eventually lost control of the Shingal region; the villages north of the mountain were freed in early 2015 and the villages south of the mountain were freed in the summer of 2017. Even then, however, they maintained large areas close by in both Syria in Iraq. Since a defining feature of ISIS’s resilience has been its ability to execute attacks in territory outside its control, the absence of ISIS fighters occupying Shingal did not mean it was safe for Yazidis to return. When assessments by community members, as well as local and international NGOs determined Shingal to have some level of safety, the initial hurdle was that Shingal was mostly destroyed and ISIS had left landmines throughout the region, making it uninhabitable. As some NGOs have made enough progress de-mining to facilitate some level of return, the main barriers to return are: the lack of infrastructure, housing, water, and electricity; the lack of jobs and ability to have an income; food insecurity; a lack of schools and hospitals due to their destruction and insufficient medical workers; and a lack of comprehensive protection for the region from attacks. As of now, the main impediments for many Yazidis’ return to Shingal from their IDP camps are that they lack the money to rebuild their houses; they have no financial means to return; and there is no means of earning a livelihood in Shingal.
  • Why is it important to facilitate a return now?
    The region has traditionally been diverse and has depended on this diversity within the civilian population for stability and balance. However, since Yazidis were forced to leave their land, this religious and cultural diversity has been replaced by numerous militias and armies, all of whom are vying for power. Balance can only be restored if the civilian population is able to return peacefully, the region is demilitarized and the various security forces serve primarily to protect the rights of the local inhabitants rather than their own interests. The Yazidi religion and culture rely primarily on oral tradition and local practice. If these are not passed on to Yazidis within a generation, many of their traditions could be permanently lost. The current pandemic highlights and increases the challenge for Shingali Yazidis living in Kurdistan. For families inside IDP camps there is no capacity for social distancing. They live in fear of infection which could lead to a major health disaster for their community. For families outside of IDP camps, periods of lockdown result in a shutdown of the labor market. When they are not able to work as day laborers, they no longer have the capacity to provide for their most basic needs. For families with some members in Kurdistan and some in Shingal, the pandemic has resulted in months of separation and an incapacity to support one another since no one is allowed to travel into Kurdistan from Shingal.
  • How can the international community help ensure their security?
    The most effective way to ensure security for Yazidis is to facilitate their return to areas of Shingal that are well-protected and that have natural resources, especially water and arable soil. International support is needed to provide infrastructure and job opportunities in all areas where Yazidis are returning. The safest places are where the Yazidis originally built their ancestral villages, at the foot of the mountain. By facilitating the return of as many Yazidis as possible, the international community can help ensure there is a critical mass of Yazidis in Shingal to engage in group self-protection and survival.
  • Why isn't the Iraqi government more helpful?
    The Iraqi government has been in upheaval for quite some time, facing massive anti-government protests, forcing one Prime Minister to resign and two consecutive Prime Minister-designates to withdraw once the Parliament rejected them. A new Prime Minister was finally approved in May 2020 after months of deadlock. Iraq now faces a massive budgetary crisis due to the pandemic and the associated drop in oil prices. Oil sales constitute around 90% of government revenue, and the drop in price/barrel severely threatens the government’s ability to pay workers and provide basic services such as water and electricity. Iraq’s GDP may plummet by almost 10%, according to the World Bank. Iraq’s system of allocating positions to political parties based on their ethnic and religious identity means that Yazidis, as a tiny minority, have very little representation within the government. The Iraqi government therefor has neither the funds nor the political will to assist the Yazidis rebuilding Shingal.
  • Which international and local NGOs are helping?
    The main international organizations assisting in Shingal are Yazda, a Yazidi-specific NGO, and Nadia’s Initiative, founded by Yazidi woman and Nobel Co-Laureate Nadia Murad. The United Nations and the U.S. Institute of Peace have a limited presence. The work of all humanitarian organizations and government agencies has been substantially constrained by Covid-19.
  • Who is Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad and what is her initiative in Iraq?
    Nadia Murad is a Yazidi woman who survived the 2014 genocide, as well as being held captive by ISIS, and has become an advocate for Yazidis, survivors of genocide, and survivors of sexual violence. A central focus of her work with Nadia’s Initiative has been to bring attention to the plight of Yazidi women and children with a focus on safety, international justice, and women’s economic empowerment. In Shingal, Nadia’s Initiative has demined large swaths of land, and is working to help provide water and sanitation, rehabilitate farms, and build schools and medical facilities.
  • What is regenerative farming and why is it relevant to Yazidis in Shingal?
    Shingal is at the very beginning of the rebuilding process and does not yet have reliable access to water or food security. Regenerative farming uses methods that create healthy soil that is capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies. In an environmentally and culturally diverse region that has been subject to so much violence, this is precisely the approach that can lead to flourishing whether it is applied to the soil itself or the people living on it. Iraq is confronted with the repercussions of climate change, including desertification. According to Regeneration International, regenerative farming employs “farming and grazing practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”
  • Is it safe enough to encourage people to return to the region?
    Yazidis started moving back to the towns in Northern Shingal in 2015, shortly after it was freed from ISIS control. Although Southern Shingal was liberated from the Islamic State in 2017, the region remained unsafe until recently due to the presence of ISIS sleeper cells, PKK militants, landmines and lack of infrastructure. In late 2019 and especially since June 2020, Yazidis have been returning to the region. Most landmines in fields, houses and other buildings have been detected and some have been removed. While some remnant sleeper cells of the Islamic State remain in Iraq, ISIS does not possess the same organizational capacity that it did in 2014 when it began the genocide against the Yazidis. Furthermore, Yazidis are now part of several military units that seek to provide security for the region. Although it is likely that disputes will continue to break out from time to time, the government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government showed that they are invested in increasing the safety and stability of Shingal when, in October 2020, they signed an agreement regarding the status of the region that specifically enumerates who is responsible for Shingal’s security. Although Yazidis rightly criticize many aspects of this agreement because they, the primary stakeholders in the region, have not been involved in the development or the implementation of the agreement, most accept that this is a generally positive step, since it attempts to resolve the ‘disputed’ nature of the area, by having the Iraqi government create a new police force, comprised primarily of natives in the region, to provide security in Shingal. Until now, this was a crucial barrier to providing safety for the Yazidis. Yazidis are aware that many challenges await them in Shingal but a growing number has begun returning to the region, in the conviction that it is the better of two currently unsatisfactory alternatives and the one that offers them hope for the future.
  • Is it safe enough to invest in the development of the region?
    Numerous nongovernmental organizations and charities such as Nadia’s Initiative and Lutheran World Relief are already operating the region. Nadia’s Initiative receives grants from USAID, indicating that the United States government considers the Shingal region safe enough to invest in. For some, it seems that the risks of NOT investing in the area outweigh the risks of making strategic investments that help rehabilitate those displaced by ISIS; a stable civilian population does not end, but has the capacity to curb, undesired militia activity. Rebuilding and restoring Shingal is also likely to decrease ethnic tensions between Yazidis and Arabs since it will be a small step in restoring some semblance of justice, a required component for reconciliation. Assisting Yazidis in rebuilding their homes and making a livelihood could thus help ameliorate a major source of ethnic tension in the region, which is crucial to enabling a safe and sustainable return.
  • Why is it preferable for Yazidis to return to Shingal? Why can’t they just come to the US, or other countries like Germany?"
    Currently there are nearly 300,000 Yazidis living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. No country is currently willing to accommodate an influx of refugees of this size. The proposed refugee ceiling for the first year of President Biden’s administration is 125,000. Yazidis have in recent years comprised about 0.1% of all refugees resettled in the United States, and while it would certainly be beneficial to increase that number, we cannot resettle every single displaced Yazidi in the United States. Even if the United States were to work in concert with other nations such as Germany, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands, it is unlikely that all Yazidis could be resettled as refugees. Moreover, distributing them among various countries would cause further ruptures within the community. As Yazidis are endogamous (only those born to two Yazidi parents are considered Yazidi) it is crucial that community members are able to remain together. Many Yazidis want to return to Shingal; it is their ancestral homeland and they have a deep connection to the place. Some Yazidis have, in fact, already returned there, so it is clear that it is possible. They are more likely to make a successful and sustainable return if they are given financial and practical support from the international development community and religious partners. This act of returning to and reclaiming their homeland will be a crucial aspect of recovering from the genocide they experienced in 2014. As Iraq continues to shape its future and recover from the war against the Islamic State, restoring the mosaic of ethnic and religious diversity that previously existed in Shingal and the Nineveh governate is a crucial aspect of promoting a healthy and stable civil society within Iraq.
  • Is Global Covenant Partners a religious organization?
    Global Covenant Partners is not associated with any specific religion and does not attempt to promote any religion or engage in any kind of missionary activity. We seek to help protect the rights of religious minorities and we recognize the unique contributions of religious faiths to civil society and the importance of religious freedom. Members of our staff and our board come from various faith backgrounds, and we engage with various religious faiths in our fundraising and development work. Our name, Global Covenant Partners, is an expression of the importance of religious diversity and the need for all world religions to coexist peacefully and coordinate with one another fruitfully.
  • How can you help?
    Offer much-appreciated financial support and expertise to initiatives that help Yazidis rebuild their ancestral homeland. Offer pro bono assistance if you are knowledgeable in fields such as regenerative farming, micro-financing, renewable energy, and trauma recovery. Monetary donations can be provided via our "Donate and Get Involved" page.
Regenerate Shingal: FAQs
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