Well, that set the cat amongst the pigeons. Last night I posted a response to the dismissive and sneering comments by Today presenters on BBC Radio 4.

I am about to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 this morning (different medium, different language, different culture, different agenda), but wanted to have a second go at last night’s story.

Despite criticism of the underlying dismissiveness of Today presenters’ comments, I would defend them, the programme and the BBC to the end. Although each presenter has a differing degree of apparent disinterest in the slot, they are still courteous, professional and do the country a massive service by holding power to account. (Whichever political party is in power thinks the BBC is against them – which probably means they are doing the job we need them to do.)

It is easy to snipe from the sidelines, but, religious dismissiveness aside, they serve us well.

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A quick link to the speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at this morning's opening session of the IPPFoRB conference at the Reichstag in Berlin. More will follow.

 

Following my post last night on the corrosive nature of promises (as opposed to conjectures or wish lists) that can't be made, by people who have no right or authority to make them and who are unaccountable for what happens when they remain unfulfilled, here is another link to the context in which I write.

The conference of the International Panel of Parliamentariians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (snappily known by its friends as IPPFoRB) ended last night in Berlin. Today we meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a one-day conference at the Bundestag.

Among the important themes that emerged among the sixty or so national parliaments represented here in sessions yesterday was the discrepancy in many countries between what is written in law and how that law is either implemented/applied or ignored. In many places it is a triumph just to get freedom of religion (among other freedoms – this isn't hierarchical) enshrined in writing. However, what matters is what then is done about it.

One eminent speaker made it dead simple: (a) make good laws; (b) repeal bad laws; (c) hold governments to account on what the law says and demands. Given that everyone here is a parliamentarian, this is clear, applicable and achievable. It doesn't guarantee success, but it clarifies the task.

What emerged from several parts of the world is the pressure under which freedom of religion and religious expression is coming. Attempts to exclude God/religious world views from the public square are not unique to the secular West, but the spurious assumptions behind them seem to have one thing in common: that secular humanism (for want of a better term) is neutral and occupies the neutral place in the public discourse. It is self-evidently true and is purely 'scientific' – that is to say, needs not to make its case for credibility because that case is obvious. The outcome – put briefly – is that liberalising societies demand the right for 'tolerance' unless asked to tolerate views that are inconvenient to its assumptions of what is tolerable. One delegate explained how attempts are being made in his country to shout down any expression of traditional family values or articulation of a conservative view of ethics that derives from religious commitment.

That is not – as the speaker emphasised – to argue the case for the rightness of his views, but, rather, to insist that these views must be allowable if his society is to be truly tolerant (an awful, lowest common denominator word).

So, enshrining rights in law is not enough. Making promises on the back of that law is not enough. It is the implementation of that law that counts, and it is the discourse surrounding debate about that implementation that demands intellectual as well as moral integrity.

 

Having published on the Reimagining Europe blog (with a good opening joke) a somewhat exasperated post about the political discourse around the EU Referendum in England, I went on to read the latest tract published by the William Temple Foundation and found it addressing – more eirenically than I did – some of the central issues that lie behind our limited discourse.

Written by Craig Colhoun, Director of the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), it is entitled Religion, Government and the Public Good. Commending the importance of imagination (imagining the world we wish to create), he identifies three problems for our contemporary political discourse, and they are pertinent to our current debates:

We live in an era that is shaped by three difficulties in being articulate. These are difficulties in saying things that we want to say but can’t quite get out, things that we know at some level but have trouble making explicit. Articulacy depends on language, on narratives, on the way we represent the world to ourselves. But we have trouble putting things properly in the focus of attention. We find it hard, I’d suggest first, to articulate a sense of purpose greater than instrumental self-interest. Second, to articulate a shared identity that is strong enough really to bind us to each other and at the same time capacious enough to recognise differences among us. And third, to articulate our relationship to history and the future, and thus to time beyond the most short-term, immediate and even ephemeral engagements.

Not a bad place to start. Or, to put it more pointedly, who is articulating a bigger vision for what the UK might become in the world of which we are inextricably a part – a vision that goes beyond mere self-interest or short-term utilitarian individualism?

Suggesting that the loss of a religious vocabulary has been harmful to our secular discourse – not primarily because it was religious, but because the imagination that fired it has not found articulation in any other vocabulary – he reflects on William Temple's social vision and invites us to constitute a new imagining of (and, therefore, commitment to) the world:

Religious traditions can be powerful shapers of such understanding. They influence how we understand not just God or angels or the power of prayer. They also influence how we understand moral obligation and social relationships. Religious imaginaries can make marriage more than merely a contract between two individuals because it is a sacrament and embedded in a community. They can impose a sharp differentiation between the sacred and the worldly. They can encourage a relationship of either stewardship or dominion in regard to the earth. This suggests why it is misleading to try to reduce religion to a set of propositions about the world that are either true or false. That misses the extent to which religious understandings, embedded in practice as well as thought, are constitutive of the world.

I doubt if Donald Trump will find his own social or economic assumptions reflected here. But, the questions Calhoun asks dig beneath some of the glib, shortsighted and purely instrumental (utilitarian) language that currently fires the passions of those arguing about our future in the European Union.

 

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.

 

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.

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.