Feast of the Transfiguration: Thousands Face Death on the Mountain

Mountains are somewhere apart from the mainstream of the world. They are often gorgeous, above the general fray of life, intensitying the beauty and hiding the ugly side of reality on the ground in the vistas they command. Approached wrongly, or in difficult conditions, they can be places of death.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Christians remember the pilgrimage of Christ with Peter, James and John – up an unknown mountain, but probably Hermon or Tabor. The prophets Elijah and Moses appear to them, and Christ’s face and clothes are transformed, and begin to radiate light. God the Father’s disembodied voice pronounces Christ as his son, recapitulating his baptism in the Jordan, and the episode is often held to mark a turning point in Christ’s journey, where it begins to run towards its culmination in Jerusalem.

The mountains of Galilee, on one of which the incident took place, sit at one end of an arc from the mountains of Kurdistan. On a straight line, about 500 miles of flat Syrian desert separate them, desert which for three years, since the start of the Syrian Civil War, been one of the most violent battlefields on the planet.

Two months ago, Syria’s torment blew back across the border into Iraq with a vengeance. The self-styled “Islamic State” has proclaimed itself the resurrection of Sunni Islam’s Caliphate, in abeyance since the collapse of the Ottoman dynasty 90 years ago. In the past few weeks, ISIS has made a serious advance from the Sunni heartlands of West-Central Iraq into the ethnic and religious kaleidoscope of the Far North.

ISIS sees itself as a literal recreation of Muhammad’s original Islamic polity in Mecca and Medina, and accompanies this with a particularly literalist and virulent reading of the Qu’ran. Shi’ites are heretics to be put to the sword. Christians might be tolerated, but only as a subservient minority subject to heavy taxes and legal discrimination. Followers of non-Abrahamic faiths are, by definition, considered polytheists and therefore to confronted with a choice of converting to Islam or dying.

Last month, the homes of practically every Christian family in Mosul were daubed with the letter ‘N’ in Arabic (ن‎), short for ‘Nasari’ or ‘follower of Jesus of Nazareth’. On Friday 18 July Christians in Mosul were given a 24 hour ultimatum – convert to Islam, pay a tax of around £300 per person, well beyond most of their means, or die. Tens of thousands fled.

Last week, ISIS continued to push north into the mountains of the Kurdish borderlands, and captured the city of Sinjar, heartland of the ancient and exotic Yezidi faith. Yezidism has elements in common with Zoarastrianism, although claims to be thousands of years older, and clearly has retained elements of the religion that inspired the stunning stonecarvings of the Assyrians and Babylonians.

They have been monotheists for a very long time, and also retain elements of ancient Middle Eastern animal sacrifice paganism familiar to readers of the Old Testament, but which Judaism has long lost. Yezidis have been intermittently persecuted since the fell under the political control of Muslims in the 7th Century.

Scattered around the point where Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet, most are Kurdish speakers and consider themselves Kurds. They are peaceful people, taught by centuries of bitter history to keep their heads down. Many of the Turkish Yezidi joined the 1960s wave of emigration to Germany and their most secure homeland these days is, improbably, the market towns of Lower Saxony.

Those in Iraq were repeatedly targeted by bombs and assassinations during the Sunni insurgency of the last decade, they may be about to face their worst persecution ever. For ISIS, they are by definition polytheists and, worse yet, ones who worship the peacock angel, Melek Taus, who Muslims and indeed Christians have long claimed is a representation of the devil.

Their current suffering is of truly biblical proportions. Propaganda videos like the grotesque The End of Sykes-Picot have, while bragging, shown grim pictures of Yezidi men in ISIS-controlled Syria locked in windowless rooms, awaiting God-knows-what fate.

On Sinjar’s fall, Yezidi men who could not flee were killed on the spot. The women were captured and taken away, with a strong presumption that they are to be used as slaves in Mosul. Well over 100,000 have made it to the relative safety of Kurdistan Regional Government-controlled areas, although they have lost all their possessions and add to the burden of refugee support services in Iraqi Kurdistan that are close to collapse. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Mosul Christians are already taxing the Kurds’ ability to cope, financially and socially.

Most tragically of all, thousands were cut off and ended up on their Holy Mountain, the 1000m+ Sinjar, surrounded by ISIS forces on all sides. Somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people are stranded in barren terrain, with no food or shelter and limited water. Daytime temperatures are currently running at 38 to 42 degrees. Most of these people are women and children.

By yesterday, most of their mobile phone batteries ran out and their water has been running out rapidly too. The Iraqi airforce made a few attempts to drop bottled water to them on Tuesday and Wednesday. But they are surrounded on all sides and without food, water and shelter arriving soon, they will die, up on the mountain.

The Church of England’s Collect (daily prayer) for the Feast of the Transfiguration begins as follows:

Father in heaven,
whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured
before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain,
and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem:
give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross
that in the world to come we may see him as he is

The Yezidis of Sinjar have endured an exodus and are trapped on their Holy Mountain; their only ‘crime’ is to have the wrong religion. Without help, thousands will die. Today of all days, I have prayed for them, not without anger at God, and I will continue to pray for them.

But do something practical if you can. Christian Aid and their local partner, REACH, are on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their operations are entirely non-sectarian, helping people of all faiths and none – and you can donate to them here. If you don’t want to donate to a Christian charity, UNICEF could also do with some funds for their emergency appeal for internally displaced children in Iraq. Neither of them can do much to help people on Sinjar Mountain directly – that depends on the Iraqi Airforce and Kurdistan’s Peshmerga fighters – but they can help the hundreds of thousands who have escaped the violence, but still face hunger and exposure.

Whatever your means however, you can spread news of the fate of Yezidi on social media – use the hashtag #yezidi. You can write to your MP or equivalent in your country, and you can write to news organisations asking them to pay attention. What is happening on Sinjar Mountain is potentially the worst tragedy in the Middle East for many decades. It should not be ignored just because the people affected belong to a tiny minority faith without allied in the West or the Islamic World.

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