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.

Following my recent visit to Iraq with Christian Aid, I asked five written questions in the House of Lords. The answers were published on 5 April and I reproduce them here:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of the use of chemical weapons by Daesh in Iraq.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: There are credible reports that Daesh has used chemical weapons in Iraq. The Government of Iraq, with support from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), investigated allegations of chemical weapons use in Iraq last year and has concluded that sulphur mustard was used against Peshmerga fighters on 11 August 2015.

Allegations that Daesh attacked the village of Taza on 8 March 2016, possibly with sulphur mustard, are being investigated by the Government of Iraq, along with two other recent allegations of Daesh use of chemical weapons. Such behaviour would be consistent with Daesh’s record of complete disregard for human rights and international norms and values. We welcome the OPCW Director General’s press statement of 23 March offering assistance to the Government of Iraq.

We continue to monitor all allegations of chemical weapon use very closely, and condemn all such attacks by anyone, anywhere.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to record the atrocities that have been committed by Daesh in Iraq so that, in due course, offenders may be brought to justice.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: This Government wants to see accountability for Daesh abuses, and has supported efforts to document them. The UK co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council Resolution in September 2014 mandating the investigation of Daesh abuses.

In Iraq, we are funding training for human rights defenders to improve victim support and case documentation of sexual violence committed by Daesh. It is hoped that this evidence will be able to be used in the future to hold the perpetrators to account.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Iraq about Iraq becoming a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The UK coordinates with other EU member states to promote the universality of the Rome Statute. We offer support to any State that is in the process of ratifying the Rome Statute or needs assistance in adopting the national legislation needed to enact the full implementation of the statute.

Whether Iraq chooses to accede to the Rome Statute is a matter for the Government of Iraq.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Iraq on resolving the budget impasse with the Kurdish Regional Government.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: We regularly raise the importance of securing a new budget agreement between Baghdad and Erbil with senior representatives of the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

During his visit to Iraq in March the Foreign Secretary, my Rt Hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), raised the issue with both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my Hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), underlined the importance of a new agreement with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani in Iraq in December 2015.

Officials at our Embassy in Baghdad and our Consulate General in Erbil continue to highlight the benefits of a united Iraq and the benefits to both sides of agreeing a new oil sharing and budget arrangement.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to establishing new consular premises in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The Government is committed to delivering a permanent, fit-for-purpose Consulate General platform in Erbil at the earliest opportunity.

Significant changes to the security situation in Iraq have necessitated that we review our requirements and plans for the Consulate General platform in order to ensure that we are able to meet our political, security, prosperity and humanitarian objectives, both now and in the future. We continue to offer an uninterrupted service from our current Consulate General platform and continue to explore options for the acquisition of appropriate office accommodation for the future.

 

I will be following these up with further questions.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox:

It's probably a good thing that I am sitting here in my office in Leeds this time because I am about to admit a shameful secret. I have never watched a complete Formula One race. I am sorry, and I am very embarrassed to confess this in front of people who love the sport.

Maybe I'm a bit thick or just a bit slow. But, the speed of it all makes it difficult to work out what is going on. I think I need a good guide and I promise to listen to Suzi Perry's show on Monday.

Perhaps Good Friday is a good day to bury such a poor confession. Whereas the cars aim at speeding everything up, Good Friday slows everything down … to a stop, in fact.

Do you remember the story? The baby of Bethlehem has grown into the annoying rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, and the powers that be decide to sort him out once and for all. So, after a betrayal and a mock trial, they nail him and watch him die. And there, in the dirt of a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, all the hopes of Christmas lie bleeding into despair.

Now, we know that the story doesn't end here. After the sheer emptiness of Saturday, when the loss and bereavement press in and refuse to be ignored, Sunday comes with an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus, taking some frightened people by surprise and whispering that death, violence and destruction do not have the final word in this world, after all.

The trick is not to jump to Sunday until we have learned to live with Friday and Saturday. Slow down. Stop. Wait. Live with the loss and make darkness your friend for a while.

All this is powerfully real to me as I spent last week in Northern Iraq listening to the experiences of ordinary people whose lives, families and communities have been destroyed in the most unimaginably brutal ways by ISIS. For them Sunday is a very long way away. Yet, even for some of them, the darkness brings them closer to the light – as one songwriter put it.

So, I won't be running away from Friday – I'll just be surprised by the defiance of Sunday when it comes. Happy Easter, but not just yet.

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.

 

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.

 

Our last day in Iraq. We leave Erbil early tomorrow morning. All credit to Christian Aid's Louise Finan and Laura Taylor for putting together and leading an excellent visit to this tragic land. Four days is not long enough to get a grip on things, but the programme shone light on a number of interconnected issues whilst allowing us to put names and faces to the statistics.

For example, this morning we joined Christian Aid's partner REACH to visit two families in the suburbs of Erbil. The first were Syrian refugees from Aleppo. The young woman, holding her very young son, struggled as she described the beheading of her big brother in July 2013. Her two teenage sisters work in a factory in order to bring money in for the family which has no other means of support or sustenance – they are 15 and 17 years old. Her nephew joined us – he had seen the body of his beheaded father and was traumatised. Her husband is missing, presumed dead. Her parents are in poor health and they all live together. They would like to go back to Aleppo, but it looks like there is barely any Aleppo left for them to return to. REACH has enabled the young mother to train as a hairdresser and start a small business. She has considered getting smuggled across the Aegean, but her family insist she would have to leave her young son behind. She is pessimistic about her son's future.

They also believe that Syria is now too fractured for peaceful reconciliation to be possible.

The second family fled from Mosul when Daesh/ISIS moved in. They were clear: Daesh kill anyone and everyone. They destroy everything. What will there be to go back to?

OK, they are the human face of the stuff we see in the news or hear chucked around in tabloid debates about “migrants”. We went from there to meet the Director General of the Kurdistan Ministry of the Interior's Joint Crisis Coordination Centre. His story was consistent with those told by other, more independent interlocutors (including from the UK and UN):

  • Public salaries have not been paid for five months.
  • Only 9% of financial support promised by international partners has so far got through.
  • Baghdad is not passing on the 17% of its budget revenue it has agreed to do.
  • There appears to be no exit strategy for the post-ISIS era.
  • While resources are diminishing, the population in Kurdistan has increased by 30% because of IDPs and refugees.
  • Capacity exists – funding does not.
  • The situation is unsustainable, the infrastructure is under huge pressure, and a bigger crisis might lie ahead.
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government wants people voluntarily to return to their homes, to retain the mix of minorities, and get international help in creating peaceful reconciliation.
  • They need financial and technical assistance from the international community, but if these go via Baghdad, they will never reach Kurdistan.

Our visits concluded as, coincidentally, US Secretary of State John Kerry described ISIS as having “committed genocide” against Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. This is a little bewildering. ISIS – Sunni Muslims – have been murdering Sunnis, too. According to the people we have met this week, ISIS is indiscriminate in their savagery, even though they target Christians, Yazidis and Shia in particular. Genocide is to be legally defined, not politically. What is not in doubt is the sheer horror and destructiveness of what ISIS is doing to ordinary people whose lives were destroyed in the most brutal way.

Now, all this begs wider questions. I will get back to them in due course. But, the dominant question in my own mind just now is what reconstruction in Iraq might look like … and whether Iraq can survive.

Which makes the humanitarian work going on here all the more impressive. No guarantees – just commitment.

 

I am in Northern Iraq with a small group under the auspices of Christian Aid. Yesterday morning we met a group involved in reconstruction and development work in Duhok before splitting into three groups to visit a Christian refugee family, a Yazidi refugee family and a Syrian Sunni refugee family.

I went with two colleagues to visit the Syrian Muslims. We sat in their rented home and listened to their story. Having joined in the demonstrations against the Assad regime in 2011, they were forced to flee once the violence began. They left Damascus, stayed in the border with Iraq in a camp, hoping they would be able to return to their home before long. In 2012 they gave up and ended up in Duhok. They were clear that they are Syrian first and Kurdish second.

Their youngest son is ill and cannot get adequate treatment. He is fourteen years old and has had no schooling since 2012. His father is not allowed to work. There is another son and two daughters. They want to return to Syria, but they have no hope. Each day is hemmed in by unimaginable and unmeasurable helplessness and hopelessness. Their hospitality was great, their hope tiny. Their dignity was intact.

How do you live hopefully, one day at a time, when there is nothing to do, no work, no education for your children, no home to return to, and no idea if some sort of solution might come in one month, one year, one decade, or never?

This visit was followed in the evening by a meeting with the Iraq director of MAG (Mines Advisory Group). They have been here for 23 years, clearing mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from the 1980s (Iran-Iraq War), the 1990s (Gulf War), the 2000s (now Daesh), and Saddam mining his own country along borders. There are 20 million mines in 3,500 minefields. This has, for example, turned the breadbasket of Iraq – the Nineveh Plain – into a disaster zone (adding to the desertion of almost the entire Christian population under Daesh). Despite more than 300 mine clearance engineers working continuously, 2015 saw 72 civilian casualties, 42 of them fatal. In Sinjar alone there were 28 civilian casualties, 8 of them fatal.

How are people to “go home” when their homes have been destroyed, social infrastructure wiped out, and the only source of sustenance – the land – mined?

What is most clear here is the destruction of trust between communities that previously had cohabited for centuries. It is hard to see a future.

More anon.