Iraq has historically been a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society, having been the home base of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Akkadian empires in ancient times. Iraq has also been a province of two other empires, the Persians and the Ottomans. The nation has had a complex history of immigration, annexation and conquest that has led to a number of ethnic groups coming to call it home. The cultural significance of the region has caused it to be considered the “cradle of civilization.” This rich heritage is now threatened by the hard-line terrorist organization known as the Islamic State. Three groups that are in particular danger from the Islamic State are the Assyrian Christians, the Kurds and the Yazidi.
The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Northern Iraq and are Christians, which distinguish them from their mostly Muslim neighbors. They are direct descendants of the people who built the Assyrian Empire. The language they speak is Syriac, which resembles Aramaic the language spoken by Jesus. The Assyrian Church has flourished in Iraq for centuries and is divided into three sects, the Nestorian, the Jacobite and the Roman Catholic. They have been targets of persecution for centuries due to their religion. The Ottomans massacred many Assyrians during World War I and the Islamic State has given them the choice of paying a tax to live in their own homeland or face death. The Islamic State has also destroyed many relics of the Assyrians’ pre-Christian past as well as attacking Assyrian villages. The Assyrians have not passively accepted this persecution. The Assyrian militant group, Dyvekh Nawsha, recaptured the village of Alqosh from the Islamic State with the aid of Kurdish militants in August 2015. The town has remained safe in Christian hands as the territory of the Islamic State dwindles from a continuous international onslaught.
The Kurds are indigenous to the mountainous regions of northern Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Iran and Turkey. The land they live in is often referred to as Kurdistan. They have lived in their present homeland for thousands of years. A group of mountainous, pastoral tribes with names resembling that of Kurds is mentioned by the records of the earliest empires in the region. The Kurds have never had a nation-state of their own, having long belonged to the powerful empires that formerly dominated the Middle East. The Kurds have a proud history of military achievement and a traditionally nomadic way of life based on the raising of livestock. The great Muslim conqueror Saladin was a Kurd. The Kurds have often faced persecution due to their desire for a nation of their own. The Islamic State began moving into Kurdish territory in 2013. The Kurds quickly moved against the Islamic State, driving them out of the town of Sinjar, helping the Assyrians recapture Alqosh and aiding the Iraqi Army in the campaign to retake Mosul. The Kurdish militias have proven themselves to be a powerful ally in the continuing war against the Islamic State. Many Kurds see the war against the Islamic State in a larger context of a war to create a Kurdish nation-state. The president of the Kurdish government association, Massoud Barzani, referred to then newly captured Sinjar as part of Kurdistan despite Sinjar having formerly been under the control of the Iraqi government.
The Yazidi are a Kurdish group and an ethno-religion of their own. They split off from mainstream Islam around the 11th century and were founded by an Ummayyad sheikh. Their main point of distinction from their Kurdish relatives is their religion, which is a mixture of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. At the core of their faith is a belief in seven angels who God appointed to rule the world. Yazidi have often been unkindly and erroneously called devil worshipers for their belief that Satan was redeemed and is among these seven angels. The Yazidi have endured severe persecution throughout the centuries and their culture has been marked for extermination by the Islamic State. Yazidi women are particularly threatened as Yazidi girls and women have been taken as sex slaves, perhaps because of the unique physical features of the Yazidi people and a desire to use rape as a tool of genocide. A battalion of women have banded together to fight the Islamic State in a Kurdish-based tradition of female self-defense.
There are other religious and ethnic groups in Iraq besides the ones I have just mentioned who face persecution by the Islamic State. The Mandaean religion, for example, is the last known Gnostic sect and consider themselves disciples of John the Baptist. They are strict pacifists and are easy prey for the Islamic State. The ethnic groups of Iraq face enormous challenges, but in the face of those challenges they have shown enormous courage in preserving their distinct cultural identities.