1. The Prime Minister has summoned her ministers to Chequers to discuss Brexit today. What are they discussing? Wouldn't I love to be a fly on the wall. At what point will it be recognised publicly that the EU countries with whom we will be negotiating do not have “our best interests” at heart, but will be looking to maximise their own interests? At some point those who have promised much will have to account for why much has not been given. Won't they?

2. Why isn't Rory Butler better known? Just listen to the guitar playing, the voice, the maturity of the lyric and the humour. Unique. He is appearing in Leeds soon, but I will be abroad and can't go. Tour dates are here.

3. Why do I feel sorry for Joe Hart?

4. What will the Germans be saying to us about Brexit when we meet in Munich from next Thursday for the Meissen Commission annual conference? We'll also be discussing the European refugee situation with state politicians.

5. Why do bad things make some people lose their faith when that faith is in a God who opts into the realities of this world and doesn't exempt himself from them?

Now we are into the autumn and the almost-three-year transition (from three dioceses) into a single, functioning and coherent diocese is coming to its conclusion (by the end of 2016), I hope to start blogging more frequently again. Which I realise will be of interest to some and a cause of misery to others. Oh well. We'll see.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.