By Sofia Barbarani
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Throughout the decades Iraq’s estimated 600,000 Yezidis have been mistakenly persecuted as “devil worshippers” for their unorthodox religious beliefs, never sitting comfortably inside a country where a decade ago they were called Arabs, and now are considered Kurds.
Under Saddam Hussein’s 23-year-rule the Yezidis were sometimes regarded as Arabs in order to tilt the balance in Kurdish regions where they live toward Arab control. That designation saved them from Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds.
Now, the Kurdish government of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, accepts the Yezidis as Kurds.
Within the community, there is a push and pull between members who consider themselves Kurdish Yezidis, and those who see themselves as wholly distinct from Kurds.
“The existence of Yezidis dates back to before there was any mention of Kurds, Christianity or Islam,” claimed Mirza Ismail, chairman of the Yezidi Human Rights Organization.
Although their culture, history, language and folklore are of Kurdish origin from the Bahdinan region, Ismail remains convinced that Yezidis differ from Kurds in ethnicity, religion and culture. But his belief is seemingly based on frustration, not fact.
“If I apply for college or university in the Kurdistan Region, I can’t apply as a Yezidi. When I come through a checkpoint I can’t say I am Yezidi, I have to say I am Kurdish. For the Christians and Arabs there are alternative options, for Yezidis there aren’t,” he explained. “I don’t want to be recognized as anybody else. I want to be recognized as myself.”
Historically, Yezidis have been persecuted, oppressed and attacked by Muslims as “devil worshippers”. This is partly due to their belief that good and evil are manifestations of God.
Today, part of the Yezidi community, which inhabits the northern Kurdish districts of Shingal, Sheikhan and Tlikef, is still subject to persecution.
A March 2004 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed the deterioration of the Yezidi situation following Saddam’s fall. It explicitly highlighted one incident where posters inciting the killing of Yezidis were found around the city of Mosul.
Khairi Bozari, the head of Yezidi affairs in the Kurdistan government, dismissed claims that the Kurdish authorities oppress the Yezidis. He said that very few Yezidis deny they are Kurdish; they see themselves as religiously Yezidi, and ethnically Kurdish.
In a 2006 interview Dr Christine Allison, a professor at the University of Exeter in Britain and an expert on the Yezidis, suggested that Yezidi and non-Yezidi Kurdish culture are nearly identical. “Their verbal and material culture is typical of Kurdistan and indeed pretty much identical with non-Yezidi Kurds. Those are facts.” she said.
The question of ethnicity, however, is often overshadowed by daily instances of political violence and terrorism, primarily rooted in religious motives.
Yezidis inhabit a Sunni dominated area of Iraq, and this entails two major obstacles: they are often targeted by Al-Qaeda because of their religion, and have little protection because of the Shiite-led central government’s flimsy grip on that region.
The situation is complicated because large swathes of Iraq’s northern lands are considered “disputed territories,” claimed both by the KRG and Baghdad. The KRG’s Bozari explained that the Yezidis straddle territories where administrative control is divided, claiming that 90 percent lived in regions controlled by the Shiite government in Baghdad.
Bozari claimed that Kurdish Peshmarga forces had been deployed in disputed areas around Mosul in order to protect the Yezidi community. He insisted that as long as 90 percent of the Yezidi-inhabited areas fall outside the Kurdish regions, they are the responsibility of the central government, meaning that the KRG cannot intervene.
“It’s a disaster”, he said in reference to the region, “but 90 percent of the area belongs to Iraq”, not to the KRG.
Mirza, on the other hand, said that the Yezidis were caught in the power struggle between Baghdad and Erbil. “The region has been controlled by force,” he said, explaining that the reason the central government does not intervene is because of the Peshmarga troops deployed in the areas.
On the ground, and far removed from the world of politics, Yezidi youth are being forced to tackle their own daily problems. Their education is lacking in quality, and they are often faced with overcrowded classrooms, leaving little space for children to learn.
There is also an absence of universities in the region, explained Mirza, meaning that many young Yezidis are either forced to relocate to continue their education, or forego higher studies.
“To study we have to go to the Kurdish area or Mosul. If we go to the KRG, we have to register as Kurds to be able to attend university,” explained Mirza. Studying in Mosul is not always possible, due to the dangers in the volatile city.
“For lack of security, Yezidis in the disputed areas suffer because they cannot attend their studies in Mosul,” explained the Danish Immigration Service in 2001. One of Mirza’s greatest worries is to see an uneducated future generation of Yezidis.
“We have been suffering for centuries and no one bothers to see us,” Mirza complained. “We hope the international community will work with the KRG and the Iraqi government so that the Yezidi people can live and survive too,” Mirza added.
A recent US Department of State report on religious issues ascertained that there is no proof of violations or oppression by KRG authorities regarding religious minorities.