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.

 

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This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

It is perhaps no coincidence that Parliament was gripped yesterday by the debate on whether the UK should join in bombing ISIS/Daesh in Syria and that today the House of Lords is debating the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. (I commented on this on its publication last week here.)The sharpest questions posed were not to do with numbers or hardware or whether such attacks constitute the UK “going to war in Syria”, but to what end these means are meant to lead. Strategy is the plumbing that leads to the achievement or fulfilment of a vision – the end.

And the haunting question behind yesterday's debates in both Houses was: if this is a strategic move, then what happens when the bombing has stopped?

I (somewhat notoriously) wrote to the Prime Minister in August 2014 to ask if there was a coherent strategy behind our responses to events in the Middle East and elsewhere – and, if so, what it was. As I observed at the time, simply repeating the mantra that “our strategy is clear” neither provides a strategy nor makes it clear. Clearly, the same concern still applies: is the UK response to terrorism and other international threats reactively tactical rather than strategically coherent?

This isn't a dig; it is a genuine question.

The debate about Syria was shadowed by lessons learned (or not) from interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Given that we can't later decide to un-bomb the ruins, where is the strategy to win the peace? And how realistic is the vagueness about timescales, given that the time needed for changing minds, establishing some sort of peaceful and achievable settlement, creating robust institutions and security for the people, is likely to run into decades and not months? I seem to remember that George W Bush celebrated 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq after about three weeks.

Today's debate on The United Kingdom's role in supporting international security and stability in the light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review is haunted by the same area of questioning. Put simply, is the Government's plan a proactive step in building a flexible and adaptable security force … or a reactive response to the challenges of today that might not be those of ten years time when the hardware will be in place?

This is not to diminish or understate the complexity of predicting the unpredictable in an increasingly uncertain world. But, it is to bang the drum for greater joined-upness between arms of government (DfID, FCO, Home Office, MoD), a more clearly worked out strategic plan for achieving a clearly articulated and attainable vision, and a realistic timescale to which we must – if we decide to act – commit ourselves.

So, what are the short-, medium- and long-term plans for Syria and Iraq? And who are the key players who will need to coalesce in some way to enable this to happen? And how is the SDSR to integrate with wider military, diplomatic and politico-economic initiatives/realities in order to avoid largely reactive tactical engagement?

These are the questions that will not go away.

 

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.

This is the text of an op-ed article I published in the Yorkshire Post this morning:

The Prime Minister has been clear that the UK’s response to the refugee crisis has to engage both head and heart. He is right. To divorce one from the other is not a good thing to do.

It has also been argued that policy should not be made on the basis of an emotional reaction to a distressing photograph on the front page of a newspaper. Yet, the photograph of a drowned little boy became the icon that transformed “swarms” and “hundreds of thousands” into the raw and defenceless humanity whose fragility is easier to relate to. There is a human face to each individual refugee.

So, the current migration crisis in Europe – driven by the destructive violence of dysfunctional countries in the Middle East and northern Africa – is a tragedy of such enormous proportions that we have to respond with the heart (and our hands) in order to address the immediate plight of stricken people. There is little point holding committee meetings to discuss politics if the people the policies are aimed at helping die before the deliberations are complete.

Yet, the Prime Minister is right to insist that the head be engaged. We can rightly be caught up in the immediate anguish about the plight of so many refugees – particularly children who have no family, no home and no obvious future. But, we also need to do the cool work of assessing the implications of the compassionate response we offer.

So, it seems to me that the massive popular response of practical compassion is both powerful and moving. It is also challenging: are we prepared to still be supportive in ten or twenty years time when the consequences of our compassion have to be lived with?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been clear in recognizing the complexity of the situation, but also in demanding a clearer response by the UK Government to the crisis: “Now, perhaps more than ever in post-war Europe, we need to commit to joint action across Europe, acknowledging our common responsibility and our common humanity. As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today… We need a holistic response to this crisis that meets immediate humanitarian need while tackling its underlying drivers.

This statement recognizes the challenges of finding a common strategic response to a situation of chaotic origin. It should not be surprising that millions of people feel they have no option but to flee from appalling violence, nihilism and destructiveness. And it should not be surprising that they want to come to Europe when we have spent generations praising the standards of living and relatively peaceful nature of the Europe we have created since the Second World War. It has become a test of our humanity as to whether we respond with practical compassion to our fellow human beings or leave them to their own fate.

Some politicians and commentators are suggesting that we can't solve the problem (principally, but not exclusively) in Syria by simply taking more and more refugees – and reasonably make the case that to do so simply feeds the human traffickers. They are right to insist that more strategic attention has to be paid to tackling the problem at source – especially as so many of the problems have arisen partly as a consequence of western military intervention in places that have now collapsed into violence.

But, this is not an ‘either-or’ conundrum. The Prime Minister has been reported as saying that “we can't take any more”. But, this is not a given – it is a choice. We can take more refugees – we choose not to. That is a different matter.

Conversely, we can choose to take any number of refugees we like, but only if we do so knowing that we must then – willingly and generously – pay the price for doing so. After all, many countries in Europe took in millions of migrants during and after the last world war, and this at a time of poverty, crisis and economic privation. We now have more than the means to address our human and moral obligations; the question is simply whether we choose to do so or not.

To do nothing is to choose. And that choice also is a moral one.

Perhaps the compassionate and costly response of Germany has something to do with a living memory of such humanitarian need on their own land and caused by their own choices. There is no reason why we on our island should not demonstrate a similar compassionate imagination. Furthermore, if not already being done with some urgency, other Middle Eastern countries (probably excluding Jordan which has already absorbed huge numbers during the last few years) should be pressured to take refugees – something they seem not to be keen to do.

Many groups in society – including churches – have responded with remarkable love and care, seeking partnership with local authorities and other groups. We must be prepared for the long haul and not just the quick fix.

Actually, the crisis is not in Europe, but in the appallingly destructive states from which millions of people are fleeing.

If, as some politicians and commentators are suggesting, we can't solve the problem by simply taking more and more refugees (and, which has some truth to it, thereby feeding the people-traffickers), then more strategic attention has to be paid to tackling the problem at source. And that is where it gets embarrassing – many of the problems have arisen because of western military intervention in places that have now collapsed into violence.

The Prime Minister is reported as saying that “we can't take any more”. This is not a given – it is a choice. We can take more refugees – we choose not to. That is a different matter.

Perhaps the compassionate and costly response of Germany has something to do with a living memory of such humanitarian need on their own land and caused by their own choices. There is no reason why we on our island should not demonstrate a similar compassionate imagination. Furthermore, if not already being done with some urgency, other Middle Eastern countries (probably excluding Jordan which has already absorbed huge numbers during the last few years) should be pressured to take refugees – something they seem not to be keen to do.

The mass migration – from which we in the UK have largely been protected since the aftermath of the Second World War – we are seeing now demands a strategic European response. Anything else will be both incoherent and inhumane. That is the political demand in a humanitarian crisis.

 

Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.