During our recent trip to Iraq with Christian Aid, we had a difficult evening with a Christian priest who accused us (on behalf of the Western church) of completing the work of ISIS by encouraging Christians to leave Iraq and Syria.

Giles Fraser has thought further about this and published his observations in today's Guardian. It can be read here.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

I am not going to find this an easy week. Holy Week, when Christians walk with Jesus and his friends towards what he knows will be a death. Their journey begins with a triumphant entry into the city, proceeds through a celebration meal – the Last Supper – and collapses into betrayal, denial, judgement and execution. Despite having been warned of what was to come, the friends of Jesus just didn't get it.

The 'not easy' bit comes from being asked to walk the story as if I didn't know the ending … although I do know about Good Friday, empty Saturday and the resurrection of Easter Day. It's a bit like trying to experience again the tension you felt when you watched a thriller for the first time … when watching it for the second or third time – when you know what happens.

Well, Holy Week is different for me this year. I have just got back from a week in Iraqi Kurdistan with several colleagues. We listened to the rationales and pleas of politicians and officials, and we visited aid projects in Erbil and Duhok – way up north. We drove within a few miles of Mosul and the Isis lines. But, most powerfully, we met individuals and families whose stories spoke loudly of Good Friday and betrayal and suffering and destruction.

On our second day we drove into the northern Kurdish hills to visit a camp for internally displaced people – people known not by their names, but by their category: IDPs. We trudged through mud and sat in small single-room portakabin 'homes' listening to stories of unimaginable suffering – not only of Yazidis and Christians and Shia Muslims, but also of Sunni Muslims from Syria and Iraq. Isis kill anyone, and they destroy everything.

In the days ahead we met families who lost everything in a moment. When they hear demands that they should return home, they wonder where that might be: their actual home is no longer there, there is no social infrastructure hanging around waiting to be re-kindled, there is no trust left between erstwhile neighbours who have now betrayed or been betrayed in the most brutal fashion.

Add to this picture that fact that only 9% of promised international humanitarian aid has actually been paid in and you can see the difficulty of feeling hopeful – hopeful for the displaced and refugee people, or hopeful for a resurrection of order.

In John's Gospel, as his friends and family watch him die, Jesus commits his mother's care to his friend. If resurrection can only follow crucifixion, then this commitment to hospitality, care and love cannot be ducked. While the situation in Iraq lies rooted in despair, it must surely be the responsibility of those who stand watching to take responsibility for the remarkable humanitarian efforts going on in the distance – to make small steps of hopefulness where grand gestures appear as empty as spent shrapnel.

We left Erbil in the early hours of Friday morning and got back to the UK later that day. Flying into Istanbul in the morning sun, the city looked like it always does: beautiful, mysterious, calm. Looking out of the window I wondered what the future is for Turkey in general and this city in particular.

It is hard to imagine how any deal can be done between Turkey and the European Union on entry when Turkey falls so far short of standards in religious and media freedom (to cite just two problems). Recent tightening of the grip from Erdogan cannot have come as a surprise. Yet, despite the suicide bombing in Ankara last week and recent violence in Istanbul itself, it didn't occur to me that a bombing might take place there today. These conflicts are interconnected.

Who was it who said “travels narrows the mind”? OK, that wasn't the original. But, although travel broadens the mind to a wider world and the complexities within it, it can simultaneously narrow the mind by compelling the traveler to think that they have now understood it. There is a danger in me thinking I now have a 'take' on the situation in Iraq, both politically and in humanitarian terms, but this is bound to be confounded or complemented by the experience of others.

For example, we hear the story of how Yazidis were helped to escape from Sanjin Mountain by the Peshmerga. Giles Fraser referenced this in his article in the Guardian written during the visit. On our return we then hear other stories of not-so-noble actions by the Peshmerga, including the threat to shoot Yazidis who got in their way. The whole picture is neither simple nor comprehensible in consistent categories.

Five days in Iraq brought our group, organised and brilliantly led by Christian Aid, face to face with the political and the personal. Stories told by people sitting in front of you cannot be denied. The statistics and rhetoric of politicians cannot simply be dismissed because they are not rooted in the personal stories of individuals and families (although you do come away thinking that some politicians ought to get out more). If anything, the situation becomes more complex, more difficult to comprehend, than before.

In our five days we heard stories of horror and kindness, of cruelty and mercy, of despair and hope, of wishful optimism and hopeful realism. Yet, these stories were not the totality – they did not tell the whole story.

For example, the Syrian refugees we met were Sunni Muslim. So, where does their react meant by Daesh/ISIS fit into rhetoric about genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shias? It is clear that Daesh brutality is meted out against anyone, and not purely targeted against non-Muslims. Indeed, it is hard to see what is religious about Daesh at all. I think those analysts are right who say the world is hitting the wrong target by thinking Daesh has anything to do with religion at all, but everything to do with sadism and power.

The abiding preoccupation for my own mind in the light of this trip (and the return to the political rhetoric of the UK) is twofold: (a) can – or should – Iraq be held together as a single country, given the evaporation of trust between communities and the inequitable distribution of finance and resources between Baghdad and, for example, Erbil? (b) the need for humanitarian aid to be provided in considerably greater quantities even if the answer to the political question above is 'no'.

A much-repeated phrase used by a UK government official in Erbil at the beginning of our visit (when we were even more ignorant than we are now) was that the Iraqis “have to sort this out themselves”. That phrase has nagged me all week. Why is it their responsibility to sort out what they did not create? Why did that thinking not hold sway when outsiders were considering bombing the place to bits? And, in that context, why is the amount of money being spent on reconstruction and humanitarian assistance such a tiny fraction of what was spent on the military campaigns?

Yes, I know that the idea of people taking responsibility for their future – especially given that any future depends on trust, relationships, common vision, etc. – is important and, in this context, more cultural than political. But, Iraqis bereft of money, homes, work, education, social infrastructure and (in some cases) hope are now being told they hold their future in their hands. It doesn't quite wash. Look at the numbers: only 9% of humanitarian aid money promised by governments has been paid.

So, Philip Hammond (UK Foreign Secretary) had talks in Baghdad and Erbil on Thursday – we found out from his Twitter feed while there – and he is very positive about the UK's contribution. He might be right. But, the story looks different when listened to through the ears of those on the ground where political rhetoric can look a little imaginative.

The prism through which I now reflect on the experience in Iraq is more multifaceted than before I went. Any judgements must be coloured by humility and the knowledge that impressions are partial. However, the abiding question is one I and colleagues will need to pursue further now we are back home is this: what credibility does a policy off enabling people (Syrian refugees and Iraqi internally displaced people) to “return to their homes” when their homes no longer exist, when the social infrastructure (including health, education and society) has broken down, when communities can no longer trust each other, and when such unspeakable violence has been done not just to people, but to hope itself?

Mercy, hope and generosity are being seen in the sheer humanitarian care being taken of such vulnerable people and communities by religious bodies – we met UK Sikhs delivering aid to Muslims and Yazidis in Duhok – who do not discriminate in whom they help. We saw this particularly in a clinic run by a church in Erbil. But, reconciliation will be hard won when the common enemy of Daesh has been removed.

 

It is the fifth anniversary of the war in Syria.

I am in Iraq with several colleagues and under the auspices of Christian Aid. It is a brief visit, but we are covering a lot of ground (some of which has got caked in our shoes).

I will write more when I am back in England and have had time to assimilate the experiences and reflect on their import as well as their impact. For now, however, here is a brief account so far.

The narrative in the UK is that refugees (mostly from Syria) and internally displaced people (IDPs) should be encouraged to go home once ISIS has been defeated and expelled from this land. This is understandable. After all, (a) shouldn't people naturally want to return to their homeland, and (b) we mustn't – in the words of one Christian leader we met – “complete the policy of Daesh by cleansing Iraq of Christians”. Yet, “home no longer exists for thousands of people, and we cannot simply condemn Christians to remain just in order to keep a presence there.

Today we spent time in an IDP camp that houses 4,203 people (comprising 791 families, 2,087 children – 672 families being Yezidi and 90 Christian). There are 3 million IDPs in Iraq of which 450,000 are in the region we are visiting – 193,000 in the eighteen camps here.

Numbers numb. So, here is one family's story, told as we sat in the single-compartment portakabin that houses eight people.

The two younger men were taken by Daesh to Syria, their families divided. They were constantly on the move. Eventually the men escaped, running by night and hiding by day. After five days and nights they came to a village in Sinjar and occupied an empty house: 25 people of all ages. Capture would have meant death to the men and slavery to the women and girls. They had no food. Their only drinking water was the rain.

Forced to flee again, they were caught up in the siege of Sinjar Mountain from where they among the fortunate ones to be airlifted to safety. They are now in the camp, three hours from where their homes had been before Daesh brought death and destruction and unimaginable fear.

Among the many questions we asked was the obvious one: do you want to go home?

The older men want to go home, but will only do so if they are guaranteed complete security from their Arab neighbours. Trust built over centuries died in a single day. The younger men see no future and no security: they want to go to Germany where some of their family already live. They feel safe in this well-run camp, but the future is uncertain. They own nothing.

There was one young woman in the room, but she sat silently and just occasionally looked up. I asked our interpreter if the young woman would like to say anything to us. She said simply that her two sisters had been taken by Daesh and, upon their eventual escape, were taken to Germany. Women and girls in such circumstances appear to be automatically taken out of the country. It is not hard to imagine why.

A policy of resettlement in their original homes only makes sense from a distance. What might it actually mean for women whose family has endured fearful threat, violence and loss before being been scattered? Or for those whose home no longer exists: relationships are dead, houses are destroyed or occupied by former neighbours, where there is no economy and no infrastructure?

I don't intend to draw political conclusions from this – I simply record the story told to us in a single room in a large camp under stormy skies and ferocious rainfall. Tomorrow we go to a refugee camp and the story will become more complicated again.

It is not hard to see what pushes these people to want to leave. It is hard to see what might pull them to stay.

More anon.

 

A few days away last week coincided with IT trouble back home. I pay tribute to my wonderful colleagues who had to deal with major hassle while I was enjoying a relaxing break. Fantastic live music has been replaced this week by some great recorded stuff: Silbermond from Germany in particular. More anon (when I get time).

However, a busy return to work has taken place in the context of the finale of the US presidential election and debates in the UK about banks, taxation and services. Fundamental to both is the choices we face in every western country as to how much tax we are willing to pay in order to get the services we demand. It is almost boring to note now the silliness of laudatory observations on (for example) Scandinavian welfare and infrastructure provisions without reference to the high levels of taxation that enable the provision in the first place. We get what we pay for.

(Do Mitt Romney's fans not question his promises that the 'American Dream' that produces winners also presupposes that there will be losers?)

A meeting with Christian Aid recently reinforced some of the thinking going into plans for world religious leaders to hold G8 political leaders to account for their commitments to the Millennium Development Goals. These goals are supposed to have been realised by 2015. The G8 leaders meet in the UK in (probably) May or June 2013. The following observations offer a basis for wider thinking on the issues and challenges:

  • Tax is key: it provides long term finance for health, education and welfare and makes governments more accountable to their people.
  • Tax is lost: Christian Aid estimates that tax dodging by some unscrupulous multinational companies costs developing countries at least US$160 billion a year. That’s more than 1.5x the entire global aid budget. (A Kenyan school costs about $10,000 to build. $160 billion could be the equivalent of 16 million schools.)
  • The problem: These companies are able to do this by artificially shifting their profits into tax havens. Tax secrecy makes trade mispricing possible allowing companies to shift profits out of a country and pay less tax. (Examples of trade mispricing from 2005: 36,000 kilos of Nigerian coffee were exported to the US for 69p per kilo at a time when the world coffee price was $2.35. A consignment of hairdryers was exported to Nigeria at a cost of US$3,800 per hairdryer when the market price of that model was US$25.)
  • A solution: Call for greater transparency and accountability by requiring tax havens to share information with developing countries and companies to report on their profits in each and every country they work in.

Christian Aid suggests that those bothered by this issue (and see recent comment on Starbucks, Facebook, Apple, etc.) might write to the Prime Minister and call on him to use his Presidency of the G8 in 2013 to put the issue of tax transparency at the centre of the global agenda. This can quickly be done here.

This is the beginning of some thinking as we look towards 2013.

 

Life is a bit full-on this week because of a deluge of speaking engagements and my final working weekend in Croydon. So, there hasn’t been much time for blogging.

The work I have been doing in my study has been accompanied by the most hauntingly beautiful music that helps make sense of some of the contradictions of life, yet also makes me feel guilty for being moved by it.

Terezin/Theresienstadt is a collection of songs written by artists condemned ot the concentration camp north of Prague, most of whom were later deported to their death in Auschwitz. Anne Sofie von Otter was behind the project to record the songs, observing that out of the horrors and propaganda of this benighted place came not just death, but also an unquenchable beauty rooted in a hope that was not fantasy.

I am listening to this in the context of a visit by our Zimbabwean Link Bishop and his wife. In Zimbabwe the Anglican Church is being victimised by Mugabe and his fellow losers. Intimidation, brutality and corruption are rife – but the bishops continue to lead their people in resisting and in working for a better future for all Zimbabweans. They make my life look easy. Their experience also relativises mine: is ‘peaceful living’ the norm or the exception?

In this connection it is worth having a look at Charles Reed’s excellent blog and, in particular, his questions about ‘justice’ in the light of current conflicts. But it also underlies the concerns behind Christian Aid‘s imaginative Lent programme which involves me and lots of other people tweeting our progress through a reconsideration of stuff, motivation and lifestyle choices. Join up on Twitter and join in the exercise…