As thousands of Yazidis fled up the rocky slopes of Mount Sinjar to escape the Islamic State group during its rampage across northern Iraq last summer, 18 men armed with assault rifles remained behind to face the extremists and defend a holy site.

Behind their meager number stood the Sharaf al-Deen temple shrine, one of the holiest for the Yazidis, a religious minority whom the Islamic State group considers heretics ripe for slaughter. But despite the heavy machine gun fire and mortars lobbed at them, the men held the line and soon were joined by others, locals recounted recently.

"We really believe in it, and it's holy for us. That's why we are here to protect it from Daesh terrorists," said Yazidi commander Qassam Shoshoe, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The temple, built in 1274, sits near the city of Sinjar, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad. It is the second-holiest place for the Yazidis after the shrine at Lalish.

Three guards typically stand on top of the shrine, holding Kalashnikov assault rifles and scanning the horizon for signs of a new assault. The shrine came under attack at least 16 times during the Islamic State onslaught, local fighters say, but the Yazidis held the line with help from Kurdish peshmerga forces who supplied weapons.

"Every Yazidi fights voluntarily, nobody is forced to," Shoshoe said. "First there were only 18 of us... Once we fought a couple of times, our number increased to a total of 500. Now we are with 2,000" in the area.

For now, the Islamic State group attacks have stopped. On a recent day, Sheikh Ismael Bahri, a Yazidi priest, entered the temple with bare feet, kissing its walls, the ground, its altar and doorway. He repeated the ritual several times before picking up three round stones on the altar. After making a silent wish, he made piles of them three times. So long as they don't fall over, believers say the wish will come true, war or no war.

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