Hours after it began, a large Kurdish offensive has retaken from ISIS a section of a key highway in northwestern Iraq that has served as a main supply route between ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq. More than 7,500 Kurdish fighters began their assault on the ISIS held town of Sinjar early this morning after U.S. aircraft conducted two dozen airstrikes on ISIS targets in support of the operation.
A statement released by the Kurdish Regional Security Council claimed that Peshmerga fighters had captured Highway 47, a strategic road near the town of Sinjar that is a main supply route between the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria and the Iraqi city of Mosul.
humanitarian air drops of food and water to the stranded displaced people on Mount Sinjar as well as US military air strikes against some of the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has focused international attention on the area. The Christian Peacemaker Teams have had a group working toward human rights protection and reconciliation in the Iraq Kurdistan for some years and are now posting daily updates on their website and Facebook page. (1)
I will not deal here with the broader issues of the impact of the ISIS on the possible geographic fragmentation and re-structuring of Iraq and Syria. As an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva, and active on human rights issues, I had already raised the issues of two major religious minorities in Iraq at the UN Commission on Human Rights: the Yazidis and the Mandaeans.
Here I ask if their fate can be identified as genocide under the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. My concern with the Yazidi (also written as Yezidi) dates from the early 1990s and the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Many of the Yazidis are ethnic Kurds, and the government of Saddam Hussein was opposed to them not so much for their religious beliefs but rather that some Yazidis played important roles in the Kurdish community, which was seen as largely opposed to the government. The Yazidis also had some old ownership claims on land on which oil reserves are found in northern Iraq.
My concern with the Mandaeans (also written as Sabean-Mandeans) came in the early 2000s after the US invasion when the Mandaeans were persecuted as being supporters of Saddam Hussein and most fled to Syria. A word about the faiths of the two groups which helps to explain their special status: although both are called “sects” and are closed religious communities which one can only enter by birth, they are faiths even if the number of the faithful is small.
The Mandaeans are a religious group formed in the first centuries of the Common Era in what is now Israel-Palestine-Jordan. Over time, they migrated to southern Iraq in the area of Basra as well as to what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of their distinctive signs is the frequent purification by running water−baptism. They honor John the Baptist, described in the Christian Gospel of Luke, but are probably not direct descendants of his followers. At the time of John and Jesus, there were a good number of movements which had purification by water as one of their rituals.
The Mandaean scriptureThe Book of Johnis probably a third-century collection.The Book of Johnwas used in Mandaean rituals and services but was never published to be read by others. Given intellectual and historic interest in the Mandaeans, the Mandaean leadership authorized the publication of their scriptures. As a sign of respect, the first printed copy was given to Saddam Hussein as President of the country.
In the confused situation after the US occupation of Iraq, the book presentation was enough to have some accuse the Mandaeans of being Saddam Hussein supporters. Under increasing pressure, the vast majority of Mandaeans left Iraq for Syria, from the frying pan into the fire. Now they are caught in the Syrian civil war, unable or unwilling to return to Iraq. A small number of Mandaeans have been granted refugee status in the US and Western Europe.
There has been some intellectual mutual interplay among the Mandaeans and the Yazidis, but they are separate faiths and located in different parts of Iraq. The structure of the Yazidi worldview is Zoroastrian, a faith born in Persia proclaiming that two great cosmic forces, that of light and good, and that of darkness and evil are in constant battle. Man is called upon to help light overcome evil.
However, the strict dualistic thinking of Zoroastrianism was modified by another Persian prophet, Mani of Ctesiphon in the third century CE who had to deal with a situation very close of that of ours today. Mani tried to create a synthesis of religious teachings that were increasingly coming into contact through travel and trade: Buddhism and Hinduism from India, Jewish and Christian thought, Helenistic Gnostic philosophy from Egypt and Greece as well as many smaller, traditional and “animist” beliefs.
He kept the Zoroastrian dualism as the most easily understood intellectual framework, though giving it a somewhat more Taoist (yin-yang) flexibility, Mani having traveled in China. He developed the idea of the progression of the soul by individual effort through reincarnation − a main feature of Indian thought combined with the ethical insights of Gnostic and Christian thought. Unfortunately, only the dualistic Zoroastrian framework is still attached to Mani’s name − Manichaeism. This is somewhat ironic as it was the Zoroastrian Magi who had him put to death as a dangerous rival.
Within the Mani-Zoroastrian framework, the Yazidi added the presence of angels who are to help man in his constant battle for light and good, in particular Melek Tawis, the peacock angel. Although there are angels in Islam, angels that one does not know could well be demons, and so the Yazidis are regularly accused of being “demon worshipers.” (2)
With the smaller Mandaean faith, originally some 60,000 people, now virtually destroyed in Iraq and unable to function effectively in Syria, the idea of ridding a country of the near totality of a faith is not for the ISIS an “impossible dream.” There are probably some 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq. Iraq demographic statistics are not fully reliable, and Yazidi leaders may give larger estimates by counting Kurds who had been Yazidis but had been converted to Islam. There had been some 200,000 Yazidis among the Kurds of Turkey but now nearly all have migrated to Western Europe, Australia and Canada.
Already in the last days, some 150,000 Yazidis have been uprooted and have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus most Yazidis could be pushed into an ever-smaller Kurdish-controlled zone of Iraq and Syria. The rest could be converted to Islam or killed. The government of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has done little (if anything) to help the socio-economic development of the Yazidis, probably fearing competition for the Kurdish families now in control of the autonomous Kurdish government and society. Now the Kurdistan government and civil society groups are stretched well beyond capacity with displaced persons from Iraq and Syria.
If one is to take seriously the statements of the ISIS leadership, genocide − the destruction in whole or in part of a group− is a stated aim. The killing of the Yazidis is a policy and not “collateral damage” from fighting. The 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide allows any State party to the Convention to “call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.”Thus far no State has done so by making a formal proposal to deal with the Convention.
With the incomplete evidence at hand, I would maintain that the ISIS policy is genocide and not just a control of territory. Although the UN “track record” of dealing with genocide is very mixed, the first immediate step is for a State to raise the issue within the UN in order to set a legal approach in motion. (3)
POPULAR MESSIANIC EXPECTATIONS.
According to Josephus the great fear of Herod was that the reformatory movement of John would develop into a dangerous political Messianic revolt. The populace was on the tip-toe of expectation; many rumours were afloat as to the nature of the long-expected God’s Anointed. Some thought he was to be a Nazir who would free Israel from their present foes, even as in days of old the Nazir Samson had freed them from the yoke of the Philistines. Moreover the well-known prophecy (Is. 11:1) about the ‘sprout’ from the p. 8 root or stem of Jesse gave rise to much speculation, helped out by that word-play which exercised so powerful a fascination over the imaginative minds of the Jews of that day, and long before and after over other minds in many other lands. Now ‘sprout’ in Hebrew is neṣer or nezer; and this neṣer was to be the longed-for ‘saviour’ (again neṣer)—sounding so well together with nazir. Indeed, as was thought, he must needs be a Nazarai-an (Heb. noṣeri, Gk. nazōrai-os). Or again, as others expected, he was to be a carpenter (Aram. bar nasar), this being, according to a Samaritan Midrash, as we shall see in the sequel, in association with the expectation that the coming Redeemer was to be a second Noah, spiritually hewing and preparing the timber for a new ark of salvation.
All this was in the air and widespread; it is then quite believable, whether John himself made any such claims or no, that there were many rumours current of a Messianic purport concerning the strange appearance and powerful appeal of the renowned Baptizer. His Nazarite vow, his garb and diet of repentance, his confident proclamation of the very near approach of the catastrophic end of this æon or age or world,—all would conspire to make some, if not many, think that he himself was the great Nazir-Neṣer, the expected ‘holy one’ of God. By others he was thought to be Elijah returned, as the prophet Malachi (the Book of the Angel or Messenger of Yahveh) had foretold (4:5): “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of the Lord come”; or even, may be, some thought that that prophet of promise like unto Moses (Deut. 18:15) had been raised up in John. John himself apparently made no claim to be any of these; he was a proclaimer of the near approach of the great and terrible Day and p. 9 a powerful exhorter to repentance. It is doubtful even whether he gave himself out to be simply “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Mk. 1:3); for such a knower of the scriptures would have been aware that the original of Isaiah 40:3 read: “The voice of one crying: In the wilderness, etc.” But apparently John was not only an inspired prophet, he was also a wonder-worker, if certain echoes concerning him in the Synoptics ring true. For there we read that because of his healing wonders Jesus was thought by some to be John returned from the dead, and that the same accusation in this connection of being possessed by a demon brought against Jesus had also been brought against John.