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.

 

Advertisements

This article was published today in the Yorkshire Post.

I remember 7 July 2005 very clearly.

I was in my office in Croydon when a friend phoned to say she couldn't meet me in London later because “London is closed”. She said the train from Leicester had been stopped at Peterborough and turned around. Passengers had been told that a power surge had shut the rail network.

It wasn't long before the shocking news began to drip through that in fact there had been four suicide bombings and the casualty numbers were going to be high. Within an hour all the buildings around the station had been evacuated and the station cordoned off. Fear of further attacks was palpable.

The next morning I was due to be at meetings in central London. There was a lot of questioning about whether it was safe to use public transport or venture into town at all. I was clear that (a) you can't let terrorists win by giving them what they want, and (b) life must carry on. So, I went.

Two weeks later there was a second attempted attack, but it failed. On a visit to Belmarsh Prison later that year I met the alleged terrorists and had a conversation with them about scriptures.

As we discovered very quickly, the bombers came from West Yorkshire; and questions began to be raised about what it was about this part of the world that made young people capable and willing to commit such atrocities. Of course, the religious motivation behind these murderous actions soon became the focus of media speculation and the satellite vans descended on Leeds and its environs.

The ten years since those appalling events have been both encouraging and discouraging.

Whatever the (often simplistic) public debates about radicalisation or ghettoisation in West Yorkshire, much significant positive work has gone on under the media radar. Relationships between Christians, Muslims, Jews and others have been worked at on the ground in order that they are strong and supportive when the crises come. When Muslims feel scapegoated by wider society in the wake of some Islamist atrocity somewhere else, it is often those of other faiths who maintain the friendship and keep the communications open. Although some local authorities are locked into a narrow conceptual preoccupation with 'community cohesion', they often facilitate and encourage serious initiatives that bring people together and break down barriers.

There are numerous examples of mutual care and compassion in our communities as well as honest debate and discussion about the hard issues: why some young people reject 'normality' and have their head and heart turned by exclusive and violent ideology; how doctrinal teaching can breed in young people the seeds of hatred; how the isolation of ghettoised communities can be countered and schools become places of encounter with difference.

The last decade has taught us that communities finding themselves under media scrutiny naturally turn in on themselves in preemptive self-defence. Muslims fear being scapegoated for the sins of the fanatics, and they resent the ignorance of outside commentators who find basic distinctions such as “ethnic” and “religious” too difficult to comprehend.

Clearly, radicalisation has its roots not just in religion, but in poverty, ideology and politics. (The Arab Spring turned into a nightmare ignited by responses to the chaos left behind by western invasions and occupations.) However, what has been particularly interesting about the western response to radicalisation and the cases of individuals and entire families disappearing to join so-called Islamic State is its bewilderment. We are told that we need to educate our Muslim young people better so that they know how appalling are life conditions under IS – that they will be subject to a brutal religious ideology that might involve them in violence and suffering. Of course, many of those who have left the relative comfort of 'home' in the UK are extremely well educated and fully cognisant of what they are heading off to. Education is not the issue. Information is not lacking. What perhaps is lacking is inspiration to see life and death here as in any way valuable or attractive.

I don't say this lightly, and I certainly don't say it in defence of Islamic maniacs who are prepared to do unspeakable things to innocent men, women and children. But, if we are to begin to understand what attracts then drives (mainly) young men and women to leave behind a life of humdrum security for a (perhaps short) life of action, we must ask this question: how do we offer our disillusioned young people an alternative world view and lifestyle that captures the imagination, fires up vision and inspires self-sacrifice (in a non-mortal sense)?

In one sense, none of this is new. Young people are always – and always have been – susceptible to alternative inspirations. But, our question in 2015 has to do with how we inspire young people to see value beyond celebrity and consumerism in a world short on vision and long on entertainment.

We need to continue to work in schools and places of worship to enable integration in a multicultural and multifaith and multiethnic society. We also face an urgent need to offer real opportunities to elements of this society who – rightly or wrongly – feel disenfranchised, disempowered and disillusioned. But, education won't do this alone; we need to inspire. And that is a much harder task.

 

There isn’t much time for writing this blog at the moment. Life is full on, and my priorities lie elsewhere. One day I will get back to it properly.

The last post was the script of the Thought for the Day, broadcast just a couple of hours before Islamist maniacs went on a killing rampage in Paris. Naturally, I got a barrage of criticism and abuse via various media. Most of this was embarrassingly ridiculous, but not worth responding to in the heated hours (or, indeed, days) following the outrage in France. Charles Moore had a go in the Telegraph, but I decided not to respond – after all, the commentariat opines without cost and without ever dirtying their hands in the real stuff some of us live with every day. I can handle being accused of “weedy niceness” – but it is interesting that the people who went out onto the streets of Paris that night were, in fact, “dancing to a different tune” and not responding with some far-right driven anti-Islamic reflex.

What we have seen since then was predictable (though not sayable at the time). Questions have been asked about the meaning(s) of “Je suis Charlie” and whether this might be somewhat naive as well as well-intentioned emotion. Unlike most commentators, I used to read Charlie Hebdo. I gave up in my twenties because it was more puerile than satirical. Easy targets do not equate to justified targets. And, as someone observed last week, the freedom to offend does not equate to an obligation to offend.

Giles Fraser has now clearly written what I wanted to write (although I would almost certainly have done so less eloquently in response to the criticism I got): the French secularism being lauded in the popular response to the massacre in Paris is not noble and is not what is understood by ‘secularism’ elsewhere. It is one thing to deprivilege religion in the public square; it is something else entirely to be anti-religion to the point of wanting to wipe it out. The myth of neutrality is just that: the public square is either open to all – including religion – or it privileges those who believe that it is open to all except religions. Neutral it is not. Charlie Hebdo was not brave to target powerless people, and it will be interesting to see if it still survives in a year’s time once the myths and emotions have moved on (as they will).

So, as the commentariat now discovers the courage to question the response to the Paris events, I can only judge that it was probably wise to be too busy to blog. And France will have to do some deeper thinking about what it really means by ‘liberté, égalité et fraternité’ and how it includes Muslims – a debate that was informing French novels fifty years ago and questions that have not been addressed since then because of the veil of ‘laïcité’.

On the other hand, the church lives every day with diverse communities, hearing how world events impact on the local. We don’t just do “weedy niceness” from behind a laptop screen; we engage every day in our parishes with all-comers. And we go wider. In the last week in my diocese we have engaged with Sudan (where the church is working hard at living with Islam), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tanzania. We look through multiple lenses. And we get our hands dirty in the complexity of these contexts – a far cry from merely sounding off on a laptop screen. These relationships take hard work and a long time; they cannot be created in crisis.

I would love to ask what – practically – the commentariat would advocate should happen now. It is easy to comment and diagnose and pontificate and ‘reflect’. But, what do they suggest we then should actually do? Should all Muslims be deported, or all mosques shut? Should we close the doors to all Muslim immigration? If so, what do they suggest we should do with those left behind who suffer the injustice? And so on. What do the clever commentators propose we should actually do?

One of my parishes held a very imaginative and appropriate service last week to honour journalists and the price they pay for telling their stories. The service was titled: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. But, the question I finish on is this: what do we do when the pen becomes a sword? Too often people distinguish between ‘word’ and ‘action’. Words are action – they are performative and they have consequences. There is no neutrality.

One of the partnership links enjoyed by the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is that developed over thirty years with the dioceses of Sudan. The Bisho of Khartoum and Archbishop-elect of Sudan, Ezekiel Kondo – a wonderful, wise and brave man – has issued a statement about the death sentence passed under Sharia law on a Christian woman who is pregnant with her second child.

It is important that politicians, religious leaders and leading Muslims at home and abroad raise their voice in protest against this barbaric and illegal judgement. In the meantime, here is the statement issued in Khartoum:

Re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and Death Sentence by Court in Sudan

Introduction:

On Thursday 15th. May 2014 in Haj-Yousif Court, Mariam Yahya was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for changing from being Muslim to Christian and for commiting adultery because she is married to a Christian man.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag was born from a Christian mother (Ethiopian Orthodox) and a Muslim father. Her father left them when she was age 6, and she was raised by her mother as a Christian. Mariam is married to a Sudanese/American Christian husband. Mariam was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity simply because her father was a Muslim. The fact is that Mariam has been a Christian since as she was brought up by her mother who has been a Christian. According to the report, Mariam, the husband and their son were all arrested because they had changed their religon, but then, the husband was released, Mariam is sentenced to death and 100 lashed for her adultery because she accepted to marry a Christian man. Their marriage is revoked. Now, Mariam and her son are in prison until she gives birth, then she will be excuted.

1. According to the above, Mariam has never been a Muslim since her birth. The fact that she was born from a Muslim father, this does not make her a Muslim in any way because she was brought up by her mother as a Christian.

2. The verdict reached by the court on Mariam is a clear and direct perscution on Christians and the Church in the Sudan.

3. The verdict on Mariam Yahya is a Human Right and Religious violation against Christians in the Sudan.

4. This sentence is even against Sudan Constitution 2005 Article 38 on Freedom of Creed and Worship. “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance, subject to requirements of the law and public order, no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not voluntarily consent”.

5. There is again another court case going on right now in Kalakla, Khartoum, of a young man who has been accused of being converting from Muslim to Christian according the Almeghar News Paper of today 21st May 2014. This young man may face the same fate as Mariam did.

Episcopal Church of Sudan Internal Province hereby condemns this court decision and requests the Ministry of Justice to review the case of MariamYahya and release her immediately. She is free to believe in religion of her choice. Episcopal Church of Sudan also requests the authorities in Kalakla to free the young man. The last judgment on the faith should be left to God alone.

The spirit of dialogue, coexistence and love that the President of the Republic called upon should be upheld.

The Most Revd. Ezekiel Kondo

Archbishop-elect and Bishop of Khartoum

21st May 2014

The final approach before the conference lands at lunchtime. This morning continues with yesterday's theme, looking at responses to societal and religious changes in Europe: Die Antwort der Religionsgemeinschaften auf die (gesellschaftliche) Pluralität.

The first paper is by Professorin Dr Isolde Karle from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum on Kirche in der späten Moderne: Herausforderungen und Perspektiven. Again, I need to read the text as she raced through it and I think I missed the odd bit. But, she noted the need for the church to shape societal change and not be associated simply with complaining about it. Culture is always in process of being shaped, including how its ethos impacts on individuals and wider society. The church is one of the losers in Modernity (in some respects), but it must also value what it maintains on behalf of others: for example, (a) keeping alive the language of corporate lament, celebration, praise, etc.; (b) a public value for people regardless of their economic value – care for the weak and poor not to be taken for granted in a society in which the basis for such care is sometimes assumed whilst being exercised consciously only by the church (which has a specific theological anthropology). Church can create the space in which people find belonging and value even when they don't 'belong' to the church itself – the place of a Volkskirche. Questions revolved around the difference between urban and rural (Stadt und Land) contexts, the place of 'belief' in all this church stuff (what does the church actually believe and how important is this 'belief' to its life or to our belonging to it?), and how decentralisation can encourage fresh expressions and a more relaxed approach to the messiness of church development.

The second paper, by Professor Dr Karl Gabriel (formerly of the Universität Münster) addressed Entweltlichung: Kleine Gemeinschaft(en) als Zukunft der Kirche? in seven theses. Basically, and having asked where the boundaries between church and world collide (among other things), he suggested that smaller groups within the church will increasingly need to be ecumenical in a decentralising church at local level. 'Elitist minoritism' must be challenged and cannot thrive in a pluralising context. But, the church's value is essentially to create and maintain space in which faith can thrive, develop and be secured. Questions arose about the difference – in nature and implications – between 'organisation' and 'institution', and how the (Roman Catholic) church has managed either to blend in (or disappear) in public spaces on the ground. The implications of an Anglican understanding of territory/parish (being there for the common good of all and not just for a church's own members) were explored – especially in the potential here for better ecumenical partnership. The top-down nature of the RC Church (and the papacy) was compared unfavourably with the Lutheran understanding that the organisation of the church does not assume the holiness of the people who run it!

The third input of this section came from Professor Dr Peter Heine (Strausberg) and took as its theme: Rückwirkungen westlichen Denkens auf islamische Theologie und Identität. This was really interesting as he told some surprising stories. Noting the constant criticism of Islamic theological approaches – that it has not begun to take seriously the historical-critical method – he cited a group of Shiite theologians in Iran who had read Karl Popper and wanted to establish the Islamic state along Popper's lines. Khameini had told Ahmadinejad that the greatest enemy of their theocratic system is… Jürgen Habermas! (The reason, explained later, was that 'democracy' does not translate into Arabic, but is only associated with Capitalism – and 'Habermas' breaks down as 'money-ism'. Bizarre.) Heine noted that Islamic scholars demonstrate a great interest in western theological and philosophical conversations, whereas western scholars either show little interest in Islamic theological conversations (and usually cannot even pronounce the names properly) and talk about them rather than talking with them. Too much to record and I didn't follow it all (again, what's new there?), but Heine covered a wide range of contexts and ideas.

The final morning of the symposium concluded with a conversation between the former Ministerpräsident of both Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (not at the same time, obviously) Professor Dr Bernhard Vogel, and Dr Daniel Deckers, Political Editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on Zeitgenössische Öffentlichkeit: Glanz oder Elend der Religion?

That's it. A summary session and then it is over.

 

Yesterday's overarching theme was: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne (Religion and secularism in the modern world). The theme of the second day of the symposium in Cadenabbia is: Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. The contributions are very academic and intense – inevitable, given that the contributors are university academics.

The first paper this morning was given in English by Professor Gabriel Motzkin, Director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on the theme of Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen Fundamentalismus und Säkularismus. His starting point was that fundamentalism is possible only where there are texts – text-based communities then use other texts to discuss (and understand) the base text. Fundamentalism replaces the world/nature with a text, this differentiating it from secularism. Therefore, the conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has essentially to do with the possibility or admissability of authoritative texts. Motzkin went on to discuss how human beings “create God”, but concluded that secularists end up with more problems here than the fundamentalists who go beyond mere human agency in the world. This was fast and furious and the ensuing discussion was rich, but it rested on a contentious assumption about terminology and (as I questioned) a confusion between 'secularism'/'atheism' and 'fundamentalism'/'theism'.

The second paper, by Dr Ahmad Milad Karimi (lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster), addressed the theme: Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen westlichem und islamischen Denken. This one was in German and I didn't follow some of the complexity of terminology or argument – again, I need the text. However, the key discussion was around problems of transcendence and immanence in a context in which there is a contested assumption about revelation and/or experience.

We then moved on to Gott als Chiffre in der modernen Welt (Professor Dr Traugott Jähnichen from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum). He basically addressed the problems and legitimacy of 'God language' in political discourse, ranging from John Locke through the (failed) preamble Lisbon Treaty to the statement that we still haven't found a form of discourse that will compensate adequately for that represented by God-talk. Speech about God (which the church must not give away) (a) imposes limits to hubris, (b) owns up to fallibility and leads to the taking of responsibility, and (c) engenders humility.

Spiritualität ohne Gott saw Professor Dr Thomas Schärtl (Universität Augsburg) define – from a philosophical perspective – both 'spirituality' (“the way in which an individual sees/commits himself to the totality of existence within the framework of meaning”) and 'religion' (“how the finite stands in relation to eternity”). He went on to offer diagnostic elements for understanding what shapes spirituality, citing such phenomena as emancipation, immanentism, expansion of choices/options, and consumerism, before looking at Christian concepts such as sin, grace and salvation.

Thinking ahead to my paper tomorrow, I am concerned about two matters that impact on how we address these concerns in the world beyond the academic/conceptual: (a) the context in Europe of common philosophical assumptions about 'neutrality' in the public square, and (b) the need for translation in a pluralist society from the language of one worldview/praxis to those of others.

I need lunch…

 

Whenever there is an atrocity committed against Christians elsewhere in the world I get asked what we are doing about it here. The insinuation is that we appease Muslims, but ignore the plight of Christians being persecuted or victimised in Muslim-majority countries.

The quick answer is that loads of stuff goes on under the radar at national, international and diplomatic level. Anglican Communion partnership links mean that dioceses and bishops here are intimately connected to those places where Christians suffer. Relationships are often strong and communication good. However, such situations often mean that 'we' are wise enough not to salve our own consciences by making proclamations that make us feel better but do nothing to help the sufferers. Public silence does not equate to inactivity or inertia.

The latest atrocity was in Pakistan and the Archbishop of Canterbury was strong in his observations on events there. I also raised questions in a post the other day. But, what do we do on the ground, as it were?

In Bradford the President of the Council for Mosques called a meeting the day after the suicide bombing in Peshawar and a common statement by Muslim and Christian leaders was agreed. A joint appeal was launched at the same time in order to provide both symbolic and practical support to the Christian community that was attacked. The statement reads as follows:

Unfortunately attacks on places of worship of both Muslims and Christians alike are becoming more frequent. In recognition of this, Christian and Muslim leaders are encouraging all to join in prayer and supporting a joint appeal through mosques and churches across the city to raise funds to support the victims of this most recent atrocity.

We invite faith leaders of mosques and churches to support this worthwhile initiative through prayers and by raising funds for the appeal.

Bradford Cathedral, with my encouragement and at my instigation, is to hold a silent prayer vigil this coming Sunday evening from 6.30-8.30pm and Muslim representatives will be present. The vigil will be introduced by the Dean of Bradford and Dr Philip Lewis (Interfaith Advisor to the Bishop of Bradford). (I will be in the north of the diocese that evening in a rural parish.) Furthermore, a place of prayer will be established within the Cathedral for those Christian victims of such violence and other minorities who are subject to violence on account of their faith. This place will remain until Remembrance Day.

While writing this I have received information about a serious outbreak of civil violence in Khartoum, Sudan, and continued violence against civilians (mainly African and Christian in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions of Sudan. These are our brothers and sisters and we know many of them by name. So far the appeal in my name to support displaced people in these areas has raised well over £100,000 in eighteen months. There is more to be done.

But, perhaps this illustrates what partnership means and how we respond in Bradford to events that appear as news headlines.