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.

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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.

 

So, we are about to enter the most explicit exercise of collective faith and we have a few months to get used to the idea. The referendum on Britain remaining in or leaving the European Union will take place on Thursday 23 June. Why 'faith'? Simply because even those who despise the concept of faith (preferring 'fact' – as if that was the antithesis of faith) will have to exercise a huge pile of it in deciding how to vote.

Staying in the EU will demand faith. We do not know how the Union will shape up in the future, given some of the strains inherent in it as an institution. We also don't know how future events or pressures will push for a re-shaping of the relationships that constitute it. Another financial crash will prove testing not only to the euro, but also to the union itself.

However, leaving the EU will also herald a pile of unknowns. We cannot be sure how our trade agreements will hold or how the EU will decide to handle Britain in the future. It seems bizarre, at the very least, that the 'leavers' seem convinced that leaving will bring only benefits to the UK whilst at the same time changing nothing in terms of relationships. Can you imagine if France related to the EU as Britian does and, ultimately, voted to leave? We would make life difficult for them at every turn, wouldn't we?

So, the campaign is about to kick off. I want to hear the arguments before deciding which way to vote on 23 June. My fear, however, is that arguments won't get heard. In a polarised British media 'Europe' is conflated into 'EU' and, in turn, the EU is associated purely with 'immigration' and negativity. This doesn't augur well for an intelligent debate leading to a properly understood outcome.

It is always a surprise that anyone believes any politician who promises anything during an election campaign. It is never a surprise that promises get compromised within days of the real world returning. I am not being cynical here: the world changes constantly, and promises made on one set of premises cannot always be guaranteed to be deliverable when the context changes – which, in this uncertain world, can happen very quickly. So, any election is an act of faith. And a wise electorate expresses its will on the basis of potential and probability, and on the character of the ones who, once in power, might have to adapt to a world they didn't predict or promise.

The referendum campaign should set out both the pros and cons of both staying in or leaving the EU. Emotional and associational manipulation should be minimised. I won't hold my breath.

I offer two starters for ten: (a) don't confuse Europe with the institutions of the EU; (b) we do not have to vote on a polar choice: pro-EU (stay in) or anti-EU (get out), but can offer a third way of wanting to stay in (recognising our place in Europe) while being strongly critical of the institution of the EU and working to see it change. Let's see how that looks in four months time.

In the meantime (because it only occurred to me yesterday to wonder), I would like to know (a) how much British ex-pats living in other EU countries get in benefits from those countries, (b) how they might be affected if rules for migrants living in Britain were imposed in those countries, too, and (c) how the first figure compares with what is paid out to EU immigrants here. Are such figures/comparisons published anywhere?

I think it unlikely that the Church of England will take a view on which way to vote as Christians will, in good conscience, vote differently depending on how they judge the benefits or otherwise of staying or leaving. However, voices rooted in more than economic pragmatism need to be heard and I trust individuals will represent those views, judgements and questions as the debate progresses towards a vote.

If the result turns out to be as close as it would appear at this stage, someone will have to pay attention to the aftermath and how we stick together when half the country is angry or disappointed – probably not only by the outcome, but by the conduct of the campaigns, too. I still hope that the Church's Reimagining Europe blog can offer a safer place for dialogue and debate than will be evident in the British media.

 

I am currently in Sri Lanka with our diocesan link bishop. I hadn't realised when we arrived yesterday in an almighty thunderstorm that this might be the mood left behind in England by the letter from bishops to the Prime Minister about refugees.

The storm is predictable, though some of the response by the commentariat is disappointingly knee-jerk.

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some 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?

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. Our job is not to be popular or to go with the flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things.

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 (that I can only witness from a vast distance and with intermittent wifi) should be on the plight of refugees (see previous posts and my article in the Yorkshire Post) and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Colombo yesterday, Kandy today. Tomorrow we move on to the north and Jaffna. Much of the conversation revolves around the recently ended 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.

The photo above is of the notice on our hotel window in Kandy. It doesn't spell out whether it is addressed to the guests or simply alerting us to an animal problem.

 

I am about to leave New York City having attended the second meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym IPPFoRB might need a bit of attention…

Convened last year by a small group of parliamentarians from the UK (Baroness Elizabeth Berridge), Norway, Brazil, Germany and Canada, this event brought together a hundred parliamentarians from fifty countries and from every continent – including from Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The Church of England was involved in planning and running the event.

Not only was there informed and passionate discussion of the challenges in many parts of the world – including the naming and numbering of the persecution of Christians – but there was also the telling of stories from particular countries. This was a remarkable meeting, in the shadow of the United Nations and ahead of the meeting shortly of the General Assembly, of politicians (largely) who recognise the challenges across the globe.

Underlying the discourse lies two tough questions that go to the heart of a world that privileges rights: who, and according to which criteria, arbitrates between competing rights? Who, and according to which criteria, establishes the hierarchies of rights and freedoms? So, which takes precedence when freedom of expression collides with freedom of religion or belief? For some people this is an interesting – if challenging – conundrum; for others, it is a daily matter of life and death. There is a lot of work to do on this, and this coalition of parliamentarians from around the globe has engagaed with it with some energy.

There is too much to report here, but reports and the text of the Resolution will be posted on the website in due course. I tweeted through the main session yesterday, so have a look at my timeline to get a taste.

 

Well, that's the sort of title to set the cat among the pigeons.

It sometimes seems impossible to have an intelligent, informed and adult conversation about Europe, it's future and its value. A bit like mentioning immigration in the British press. It could be thought that this isn't the best time to be opening a new conversation about Europe: the news is dominated by the refugee and migrant crisis across the continent, and views vary about what should be done.

But, a new blog – Reimagining Europe – has been launched this week precisely in order to open a different sort of conversation. A wide range of contributors from across the spectrum of opinion has been invited to write. The idea is that people can listen and contribute to a debate that needs to be had. Whatever the future holds and whatever shape Europe takes politically, we will still have to live together in a common continent.

So, this is the church's invitation to a better conversation. Set up by the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, it is a case of the churches creating a new space for another dialogue. I hope it will get around some of the polemical polarisation we have become used to (and weary of) when the question of Europe is posed. As we approach the referendum in due course, this blog should prove useful.

 

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

Recently I was in Stuttgart and took part in a two-hour discussion with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The theme of the event – which took place before more than ten thousand people – focused on a question: is the world spinning out of control?

It's a good question, isn't it? Austerity at home and protests on the streets; financial and economic brinksmanship in Greece – with the implications for the rest of Europe of a Grexit; the continuing brutality of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; Ukraine and the confidence of a re-energised Russia; political instability and the threat of climate change. And that's just a sample from today's headlines.

The German Foreign Minister began by saying that the world has never been in such a dangerous place. Kofi Annan claimed that, actually, the world has never been safer. But, both went on to remind the audience of how the world was in the first half of the twentieth century, and only then compare with today.

I listened to this exchange and concluded that they were both right. It depends on your perspective. Only seventy years ago the world buried tens of millions of people who had died as the result of world war. Of course, this had been the second of these: we hadn't actually learned from the so-called 'war to end all wars' just a couple of decades before. I remember, as a small child, the Cuba missile crisis and the pervasive mood of fear. The Cold War itself, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, has also been quickly forgotten.

It seems to me that every generation thinks it might be the last. That the crises and challenges of today are the ultimate ones. That things have never been so bad. A bit like crime statistics: even if the figures go down, people for some reason still feel the fear. There are, of course, other examples.

Well, if you look at what fills the headlines and our screens, the world is in a pretty bad way. And it isn't hard to fuel the fear. But, hope has always defied this sort of thing. The Jews in exile in the eighth and sixth centuries BC faced the horrors of dislocation and alienation, but their poets fired their imaginations, helping them see beyond their immediate experience to what could one day come to be. Christian hope is rooted not in a simple reaction to the present challenges, but in being grasped by a vision of a different way – and then committing oneself to making it happen. The Christian vision of the Kingdom of God involves neither naïveté nor fantasy, but committed hope.

Perhaps what we need today is fewer analysts and commentators, and more poets: holding out a vision that fires the imagination and won't let us go.