I have a weird life.

Last Monday I chaired a Bishop's Staff Meeting in Leeds before getting the train to London to record BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (Christmas special) with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I got the first train back to Leeds for the formal opening of our new diocesan office on Tuesday morning. Wednesday saw me back on the train to London for the House of Lords (also on Thursday) covering a number of issues facing the country and the world. Thursday evening I was on a panel at City University, London, on the ethics of migration – with some excellent panellists that made me want to do more academic work again. Friday morning I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (always a privilege) before having coaching and then doing a shed load of emails and other work. Saturday and Sunday were spent at Limehouse with my cell group, and Monday I spent in bed feeling like death. Today was the House of Bishops at Lambeth Palace, followed by a meeting with the government's Lord Bourne on faith issues'. Now I am back on the train to Leeds.

Me and Nick Baines

Why do I tell you that? Well, few people get an idea of what a bishop does – or the range of stuff that he/she is expected to cover. Simply illustrative. Back in Leeds, I start at 8am tomorrow and have meetings all day in the Diocese. Never boring.

But, while all this is going on the world bleeds.

One of the recurring conversations at the moment is whether democracy works. Well, of course it does. It delivers what people vote for. However, it is not necessarily truthful, intelligent or wise. It does not necessarily deliver what people thought they were voting for. Nothing new there. But, one of the glaringly bizarre questions emerging from both Brexit and Trump is why people didn't question the language used by the elite who led the campaigns. For example, who exactly is “the establishment” if it isn't the very people who were slagging off the establishment? How is “the elite”, if it isn't hugely privileged and economically comfortable people who will not suffer one iota from the consequences of what they persuaded people to vote for!

How many billionaires are there in the Trump administration? Why is President Putin so happy?

And all this finds focus in the cries of the children of Aleppo. While the blood flows today in the final brutality of war, the rest of us are confronted with an unpalatable challenge: we tell our government not to apply military power in Syria … only to complain that the Russian/Assad violence on our screens has been exercised without opposition. The West doesn't know what it believes. No wonder Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) was quoted on Twitter this afternoon as saying: ” We are fed up with the constant whining of our American colleagues.”

We will see what happens. In the meantime, Christians will find a vocabulary in the Psalms for the conflicted cries of “how long?” and “why do the poor suffer?” and “why are we so rubbish at getting things right for the sake of the weak and vulnerable?” (which,I admit, is a rough translation).

As I mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords some weeks ago (on the admission to the UK of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children from Calais), the generation of children who suffer from our inactivity will not forget what we did not do for them. The seeds of the next three or four generations' violence are being sown now.

And we cannot pretend ignorance.

 

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

This week we have heard two stories about violence and extremism that raise questions about how it is possible to move on from terrible trauma into a new future. One involves Christians who have fled from their villages in Iraq and now refuse to return. They are too afraid of violence and no longer see their houses or communities as 'home'. They are driven by fear and suspicion – and it doesn't take too much imagination to work out why. After centuries of living side by side with people of different religious commitment and ethnic identity, these societies are now fragmented, divided and shredded of trust.

The second is the conviction and sentencing yesterday of Thomas Mair for the murder of MP Jo Cox. The sheer dignity of her family in the face of this violence has been remarkable. But, now they have to reconcile themselves to a lifetime without the woman who was their mother, wife, daughter and sister, and so on. Shaping a new future in the light of such loss is not an easy task.

So, two events – one far away in Iraq where I visited refugees earlier this year, and one in my own diocese – where we see the human and social consequences of extremism which leads to isolation and violence, and where reconciliation looks hard to find. But, giving up on the possibility of reconciliation only condemns people to further isolation, fear, distrust and suspicion.

Words like “peace and reconciliation” can appear bland; but the task of reconciling is demanding and costly. It's about trying to hold together people whose experience has torn them apart. The whole point of it is that already divided, damaged and conflicted people can choose to break the cycle of hatred.

The symbol of Christianity is a cross – a man nailed to it with arms open, exposed to all that the world can throw at him, but not throwing it back. Open arms can represent welcome to all-comers; they can also hold together those at extremes who otherwise might pull apart into different worlds. And there's the risk that those doing the reconciling find themselves being pulled apart in the process.

In her first Commons speech Jo Cox said: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me … is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Hearing this again, I am haunted rather than comforted by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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.

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.