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

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

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

This week we have heard two stories about violence and extremism that raise questions about how it is possible to move on from terrible trauma into a new future. One involves Christians who have fled from their villages in Iraq and now refuse to return. They are too afraid of violence and no longer see their houses or communities as 'home'. They are driven by fear and suspicion – and it doesn't take too much imagination to work out why. After centuries of living side by side with people of different religious commitment and ethnic identity, these societies are now fragmented, divided and shredded of trust.

The second is the conviction and sentencing yesterday of Thomas Mair for the murder of MP Jo Cox. The sheer dignity of her family in the face of this violence has been remarkable. But, now they have to reconcile themselves to a lifetime without the woman who was their mother, wife, daughter and sister, and so on. Shaping a new future in the light of such loss is not an easy task.

So, two events – one far away in Iraq where I visited refugees earlier this year, and one in my own diocese – where we see the human and social consequences of extremism which leads to isolation and violence, and where reconciliation looks hard to find. But, giving up on the possibility of reconciliation only condemns people to further isolation, fear, distrust and suspicion.

Words like “peace and reconciliation” can appear bland; but the task of reconciling is demanding and costly. It's about trying to hold together people whose experience has torn them apart. The whole point of it is that already divided, damaged and conflicted people can choose to break the cycle of hatred.

The symbol of Christianity is a cross – a man nailed to it with arms open, exposed to all that the world can throw at him, but not throwing it back. Open arms can represent welcome to all-comers; they can also hold together those at extremes who otherwise might pull apart into different worlds. And there's the risk that those doing the reconciling find themselves being pulled apart in the process.

In her first Commons speech Jo Cox said: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me … is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Hearing this again, I am haunted rather than comforted by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Yesterday evening (26 April 2016) the House of Lords considered amendments made in the House of Commons to the Government’s Immigration Bill. Labour Peer Lord Dubs proposed an amendment (as an alternative to his previous one, rejected by MPs), that would require the Government to “make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe”. I spoke in support of the amendment:

My Lords, I was recently in northern Iraq, visiting internally displaced people and Syrian refugees. In a meeting with the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian aid, we were told that despite the generosity promised by many international donors, only 9% of the money had actually got through. That was not specifically applied to the UK. I do not know how much of the UK’s promised aid has gone but it was 9% overall. So when we hear about the amount of money that has been promised, it does not tell us how much has been delivered.

The second background point I would make is that in meeting refugees and internally displaced people, it became clear that there is a divide by generation. The older people still dream of going back home; the younger people and their children do not believe that they have a home to go back to. In the areas where ISIS has been, in many cases it has simply destroyed everything. There is no infrastructure. There are no homes or schools. What has been left has often been booby-trapped. So what does it mean to say that we want to help all these people go home, when home may no longer exist? The communities where for generations they lived together have now been destroyed because of the violence and what has gone on.

My fear in this is that we are going to have tens of thousands of children whose experience of not being welcomed when they are genuine refugees, who have shown extraordinary resilience to leave and get to where they have, will not forget how they were treated. If we want to see resentment or violence among the next two generations in that part of the world, the seeds are being sown now. I feel that the humanitarian demand outweighs some of the more technical stuff that we have heard. I applaud the Government for what they are doing, particularly in relation to the camps out in the Middle East, but they are not addressing the question on our doorstep. I support the amendment.

The amendment was passed by 279 to 172 votes and returned to the House of Commons for further consideration. I voted for the amendment. We will see if the Commons sends it back again.

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.

 

This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

It is perhaps no coincidence that Parliament was gripped yesterday by the debate on whether the UK should join in bombing ISIS/Daesh in Syria and that today the House of Lords is debating the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. (I commented on this on its publication last week here.)The sharpest questions posed were not to do with numbers or hardware or whether such attacks constitute the UK “going to war in Syria”, but to what end these means are meant to lead. Strategy is the plumbing that leads to the achievement or fulfilment of a vision – the end.

And the haunting question behind yesterday's debates in both Houses was: if this is a strategic move, then what happens when the bombing has stopped?

I (somewhat notoriously) wrote to the Prime Minister in August 2014 to ask if there was a coherent strategy behind our responses to events in the Middle East and elsewhere – and, if so, what it was. As I observed at the time, simply repeating the mantra that “our strategy is clear” neither provides a strategy nor makes it clear. Clearly, the same concern still applies: is the UK response to terrorism and other international threats reactively tactical rather than strategically coherent?

This isn't a dig; it is a genuine question.

The debate about Syria was shadowed by lessons learned (or not) from interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Given that we can't later decide to un-bomb the ruins, where is the strategy to win the peace? And how realistic is the vagueness about timescales, given that the time needed for changing minds, establishing some sort of peaceful and achievable settlement, creating robust institutions and security for the people, is likely to run into decades and not months? I seem to remember that George W Bush celebrated 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq after about three weeks.

Today's debate on The United Kingdom's role in supporting international security and stability in the light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review is haunted by the same area of questioning. Put simply, is the Government's plan a proactive step in building a flexible and adaptable security force … or a reactive response to the challenges of today that might not be those of ten years time when the hardware will be in place?

This is not to diminish or understate the complexity of predicting the unpredictable in an increasingly uncertain world. But, it is to bang the drum for greater joined-upness between arms of government (DfID, FCO, Home Office, MoD), a more clearly worked out strategic plan for achieving a clearly articulated and attainable vision, and a realistic timescale to which we must – if we decide to act – commit ourselves.

So, what are the short-, medium- and long-term plans for Syria and Iraq? And who are the key players who will need to coalesce in some way to enable this to happen? And how is the SDSR to integrate with wider military, diplomatic and politico-economic initiatives/realities in order to avoid largely reactive tactical engagement?

These are the questions that will not go away.

 

Following the furore over the bishops' letter to the Prime Minister about refugees, I was asked to put pen to paper for the Yorkshire Post to explain why I agreed to be a signatory. The reason I agreed is that I had just spent the day meeting people who have been on the wrong end of war, displacement, humiliation and hopelessness – just like many of those escaping from the Iraq and Syria we have helped create. So, here is the article published this evening for tomorrow's paper.

I am not sure what the politicians and political commentators have been doing today? Still seething about the letter written by 84 bishops to the Prime Minister asking for a rethink on the numbers of refugees to be let into the UK? Still sitting behind screens being sarcastic about bishops and their big houses (which are actually their offices)? I have read today that some responses are becoming less hysterical now that the letter has actually been read.

Forgive me for being just a teensy bit touchy on this. I am in Sri Lanka visiting our link bishop of Colombo. The Church of England dioceses have links across the world: West Yorkshire and the Dales has close connections with Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Sweden (Skara), USA (Southwestern Virginia), Pakistan and Germany (Erfurt, though, obviously, this is not an Anglican link).

In other words, rather than simply pontificating about situations, we actually have grassroots connections with them. When asked why the bishops don't wade in on, say, the 100,000 killed in South Sudan, well … actually we have and we do. We also go to Sudan and see the impact of the conflicts in the South. It could be argued that we know what we are talking about.

So, back to the letter to the Prime Minister. If you are one of those seething about the well-meaning bishops getting it wrong again, have a look at this first:

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some five weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon? (Funnily enough, a letter from the Home Office arrived on Tuesday.)

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Labour ought we were right wing; the Tories think we are all lefties. We just have to get used to the knee-jerk responses that this defensiveness provokes.

The job of bishops is not to be popular or simply to go with the current, dominant flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things. The church cannot duck its prophetic vocation. Read the Bible and we are always getting into trouble with the powers that be – it goes with the territory.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument should be on the plight of refugees and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Today (Tuesday) I have moved from Kandy to Jaffna in Sri Lanka. We visited small rural communities and met people whose limbs have been blown off (or worse) during the thirty year civil war that ended in vile brutality only five years ago. One man with no left leg and a mangled right leg and foot cannot work and cannot support his family. An elderly woman has lost all her relatives in the carnage and now is totally alone. We went to an orphanage run by the Church of Ceylon where we met the inspirational priest and his wife who led a group of mentally ill women through the war zone to safety; they also brought several dozen orphaned girls. They were separated and only found each other again once the war ended. The warden of the orphanage has only one leg.

How many of the commentariat have actually got out from behind their screens to meet real people with real faces and real lives? Just asking. Because this is how the church lives, and it is how the bishops learn reality away form our small island.

Syria is a catastrophe. It is not numbers who are fleeing – it is people. And their torment will continue long after they have escaped the immediate horrors.

Much of our conversation here revolves around the civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

I think our letter might have been too gentle and diplomatic, after all.