BAGHDAD – The bad blood began to rise a few months ago in northern Iraq with the kind of love affair so reviled by Iraq’s religious extremists: A Muslim woman eloped with a member of a tiny religious sect called Yazidi.
It erupted in a massacre Sunday, police said, when Sunni gunmen in Mosul hijacked a busload of mostly Yazidi workers from a nearby town and shot and killed 23 of them, one by one.
Yazidi is neither Christian nor Muslim. Its followers have faced persecution from a succession of rulers.
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The mass murder was the latest attack on religious minorities in Iraq, where human rights groups say Christians, Jews and members of other smaller sects are often killed, persecuted or forced to convert by Muslim extremists. Last month in Kirkuk, two elderly Chaldean Catholic nuns were killed by armed men who stormed into their house as they slept.
But police said Sunday that the Mosul killings appeared to be rooted not just in religious differences, but also in revenge.
Four months ago, the Muslim woman eloped with the Yazidi man, who was from Shikhan, a Yazidi-majority village outside Mosul, said Mohammed Abdul Aziz al-Jabouri, the city’s deputy police chief in Mosul. Muslims responded by torching some Yazidi homes in Shikhan, he said.
A few days ago, a Yazidi woman from Beshiqa, another nearby village populated mostly by Yazidis, eloped with a Muslim man and converted to Islam. To punish her, Jabouri said, the woman’s family stoned her to death.
On Sunday afternoon, workers from a Mosul textile factory were heading home to Beshiqa when gunmen stopped their bus, police said. After checking passengers’ identifications, the gunmen drove to an isolated Mosul suburb, then lined up 23 Yazidis and shot them to death, said Abdul Karim Khalaf al-Kinani, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
“They don’t know the language of negotiation,” he said of the killers, who he said were probably members of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq. “They only know the language of weapons.”
In February, Yazidis in Bashiqa went into hiding after mobs of Sunni Kurds attacked businesses and homes in anger over a Muslim woman’s association with two Yazidi men.
A Sunni Arab politician in Mosul blamed the shootings on insurgents trying to foment religious violence.
Fast Facts: The Yazidi faith
The group practices an ancient religion that includes elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and worships the peacock angel, or Malak Taus, which appears as a royal blue peacock.