updated 8/15/2007 11:00:58 PM ET 2007-08-16T03:00:58

The suicide bombings that ravaged the Yazidi sect in Iraq underscored the fears of violence and insecurity binding many of the nation’s religious minorities, ranging from Christians who are fleeing their ancient enclaves to a dwindling sect that follows the teachings of John the Baptist.

The various religious groups — which in total account for no more than 3 percent of the population — increasingly worry that they will be caught helplessly in the battles between the majority Shiite and Sunni factions or, as in the case in Tuesday’s attack, directly targeted by extremists.

“Minorities have historically inhabited areas that are disputed, that lie at the fault lines of the other communities,” said Mark Lattimer, executive director of the London-based Minority Rights Group.

The Yazidi, said Lattimer, have a double curse.

They live in a strategic corridor between Mosul, the chief city in northern Iraq, and the borders of Turkey and Syria. The area could become increasingly coveted territory for the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, which appears to be seeking to retrench in northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds in and around Baghdad by U.S.-led offensives.

The group is blamed for the series of four suicide truck bombings that claimed at least 250 lives in the Yazidi town of Qahataniya in the deadliest attack on civilians since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Yazidi also are often scorned by Muslims as infidels for their blend of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic faith of Persia. The Yazidi — mostly ethnic Kurds — date their beliefs back 4,000 years and worship an angel figure, Malak Ta’us, or Peacock Angel, who is considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians. Yazidis, who don’t believe in hell or evil, deny the characterization.

Little ability to protect themselves
The Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, distributed leaflets a week ago warning residents near the scene of Tuesday’s bombings that an attack was imminent because Yazidis are “anti-Islamic.”

Small communities of Yazidis can be found in Syria, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia, but the majority of the estimated 100,000 believers live in Iraq. Most Yazidis, even young people, choose to live in isolated communities, though they often face extreme poverty.

Lattimer said that while Saddam Hussein would target minority groups if it suited his political objectives, these small sects were generally left alone. Since the 2003 invasion, however, the minorities have been least able to protect themselves, he said.

Many minorities groups have chosen to flee — threatening to cripple communities whose roots stretch back thousands of years.

The Sabean Mandaeans, a pre-Christian sect that follow the teachings of John the Baptist, now numbers about 5,000 in Iraq, down from an estimated 25,000 in early 2003, according to testimony by Suhaib Nashi, general-secretary of the Mandaean Associations Union, to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in July.

Christians flee
As many as 50 percent of Iraq’s Christians — which once numbered between 1 million and 2 million — may already have left the country, according to a report issued in May by the commission. Christians are at particular risk as perceived supporters of the United States and its Western allies, said a Minority Rights Group report.

The Jewish community, which is also accused by extremists of sympathizing with U.S. troops, has a long history of persecution in Iraq, which has prompted several waves of emigration, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lattimer said it is difficult to calculate their current numbers because they mostly do not want to draw attention, but they comprise a “very, very small residual community.”

Only eight Jews remain in Baghdad, said an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Andrew White, who has aided the group. About a century ago, Jews accounted for one-third of the city’s population as recently as a century ago.

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