December 8, 2016 / 10:53 AM / in 8 months

Yazidi leader seeks protection for community after genocide

Displaced women and children from the minority Yazidi sect, who were kidnapped by Islamic State militants of Tal Afar but managed to escape, are seen at a house in Duhok province, northern Iraq, November 24, 2016. Picture taken November 24, 2016.Ari Jalal

SHIKHAN, Iraq (Reuters) - The spiritual leader of Iraq’s Yazidis said his people need international help to recover from the worst atrocities they have suffered in more than a century and to reintegrate thousands of women who were enslaved by Islamic State.

Khurto Hajji Ismail, the Yazidi Baba Sheikh, or religious leader, said an edict he issued to reintegrate former captives has helped overcome traditional resistance to accepting back women who were raped or members who converted to another faith, even if it was under force.

Hundreds of women freed from captivity, either by escaping or in return for ransoms, have been baptised as Yazidis again in the spring that runs under temple of Lalesh, a ceremony that symbolized admission into the community.

"Baptism means that you are welcome," Ismail said in an interview at his residence in Shikhan, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Islamic State enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and children when it overran parts of Iraq in 2014.

Thousands of captured men were killed in what a U.N. commission termed a genocide against the Yazidis, a religious community of 400,000 people who live mostly in the Sinjar mountain of northwestern Iraq, near the Syrian border. They speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish language.

Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of ancient Middle Eastern religions, are considered infidels by the hardline Sunni Islamists who declared a caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq.

The militants have been retreating in both countries since last year and are now fighting off a U.S-backed offensive on their major city stronghold, Mosul, where some Yazidi captives are believed to be held. Many were also taken to Raqqa in Syria.

"We spoke with the French, with the Germans, with Washington, we went to Moscow," said the Baba Sheikh, adding that it was up to the international community to find "the best way" to protect the Yazidis after Islamic State is defeated.

The Baba Sheikh published an edict in February 2015 that those rescued "remain pure Yazidis", and calling on "everyone to cooperate so that the victims can return to their normal lives and integrate into society."

Displaced women and children from the minority Yazidi sect, who were kidnapped by Islamic State militants of Tal Afar but managed to escape, are seen at a house in Duhok province, northern Iraq, November 24, 2016. Picture taken November 24, 2016.Ari Jalal

However, more than 3,500 remain in captivity, said Hussein Alqaidi, the director of the Kidnapped Affairs department at the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdish self-rule administration in northern Iraq.

A "network of good people", active in the Islamic State-held region, is helping secure the release of the captives, he told Reuters. He declined to give details of how they operate, but some released captives say ransoms were paid for their freedom.

"The financial aspect is very important, but there are also operations to bring them back by telling them to go to a certain location, and we rescue them from there," Alqaidi said.

Nearly 2,800 were freed, of which more than 1,030 are women, 1,450 children and 300 men, Alqaidi said.

A former captive, Warida Haji Hameed, said she was freed with her four children after $35,000, or $7,000 for each person, was paid to her captor in Raqqa.

The 27-year-old woman is among those who went to the temple of Lalesh to be baptised again after her forced conversion to Islam. She was released about a year ago and now lives in a camp near the Kurdish city of Duhok.

"We were so happy at the baptism," she said. "We prayed for those still missing and for my husband," who was kidnapped at the same time as the rest of the family.

But Heloua Hussein, another ex-captive, said she cannot afford to make the trip to Lalesh. "We have nothing, no heating fuel, no food," said the 44-year-old, who lives in a construction site in Dohuk with two other Yazidi families.

"The community has in general welcomed them back with love and consideration, and many got married with Yazidi expatriates in Europe," said Saib Khidir, a Yazidi lawyer and human rights activist in Baghdad.

"But still, the level of violence inflicted on them is such that they need special care and special therapy that unfortunately the local governments are not providing."

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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