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The Last Pagans of Iraq

SINGAPORE – With US President Barack Obama belatedly ordering air strikes and humanitarian airdrops of food and relief supplies to refugees in northern Iraq, the world is finally taking action against the Islamic State. Within a few months, the jihadist group, which until recently called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has taken control of large parts of both countries, where it has proclaimed a new “Caliphate.” But the real reason to fear the Islamic State is not its lust for power; it is the systematic, cold-blooded way in which its members are erasing the region’s social, cultural, and demographic past.

Within a few weeks, the Islamic State has virtually eliminated the entire Shia Muslim and Christian populations from the lands that it controls. The city of Mosul, home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, no longer has any Christians left. Priceless Assyrian artifacts have been publicly destroyed in a campaign against idolatry.

Indeed, the Islamic State has not even spared Sunni co-religionists who do not adhere to their extreme interpretation of Islam. A number of revered shrines have been demolished, including one said to be the Tomb of Jonah.

As terrible as all of this is, the worst of the persecution has been aimed at the Yezidi, an ancient religious group that lives among the Kurds. They number less than a half-million, and two-thirds of them live around Mosul in northern Iraq. The rest are scattered across neighboring countries like Syria, Armenia, and Turkey. More recent immigrant communities are to be found in Germany and the United States.