THE BLOG
04/02/2016 11:20 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Having Faith in Religious Harmony

The terrible war being waged by the barbaric thugs of Daesh (ISIS) across the Middle East, and now North Africa too, continues almost unabated. Local populations are being terrorised and minorities, in particular, are facing unprecedented levels of persecution.

Recently the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that at least 18,802 Iraqi civilians were killed between January 2014 and October 31st last year. Another 36,245 poor souls were wounded.

Thousands of others are thought to have died as a result of the secondary effects of conflict, such as lack of clean water, shelter and medical assistance. Millions are living in uncomfortable makeshift camps across the country - freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer - unable to return to their homes not just in the short term but probably for ever.

My charity, AMAR International Charitable Foundation, has been working in the region since 1991, and our teams thought they had seen it all, but even they are horrified by the levels of violence, the sheer viciousness of Daesh.

Every day, these thugs are ripping apart the lives of thousands of men, women and children, and NGOs such as AMAR are desperately battling to pick up the pieces.

Over the past 18 months, I have personally heard countless horrifying accounts from those whose lives have been utterly devastated. Families forced to flee their homes with just the clothes on their backs. Men and women who felt they had no other option but to flee their homeland and risk perilous journeys across the waves to Europe. Girls snatched from their families and kept as sex slaves in dark basements and blacked-out rooms. Children who watched as their parents and siblings were murdered in front of them.

With such suffering, the UN's 'Interfaith Harmony Week', which is currently being observed across the world, may seem trivial to those forced to endure unending violence. But today, more than ever, we need to acknowledge the urgent need for inter-religious dialogue to tackle extremist ideologies and sectarianism.

"We are facing a wave of extremism and barbarism committed in the name of religion," Khaleel al-Dakhil, a Yazidi activist, commented at a religious tolerance conference organised by AMAR in December.

"It is the duty of us all - firstly as human beings and secondly as Iraqis - to confront this with a culture of tolerance, love and respect. We urgently need to be open with each other, and to accept each other."

Sunnis, Shias, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Shabak - Iraq is a tapestry, woven with a rich variety of religious and ethnic groups who have, until now, coexisted peacefully for centuries. But over the decades, religious intolerance and ethnic hatred have damaged its very fabric. As our Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales warned in December, the country risks losing minorities such as Christians 'within five years' should emergency action not be taken immediately.

As well as providing victims of sectarian violence with urgent emergency assistance, we must prioritise work to tackle the root causes of brutality and promote a more peaceful and tolerant society which incorporates all individuals.

This is exactly what AMAR has been doing for the past year through its ground breaking religious tolerance programme. Engaging with diverse groups across society, our teachers are entrenching a greater sense of unity amongst Iraqis through classes on issues such as human rights, freedom of expression, and Iraq's history. Through education, we are slowly but surely sewing Iraq's tapestry back together.

We are determined that this scheme will be introduced across Iraq, and we know that the vast majority of Iraqi people will be right behind us. We also firmly believe that the model is one that could quite easily translate to any other country in the world - including the UK which now faces its own very real problems with religious radicalisation.

"Fanaticism, violence and intolerance originate in the barriers between us," one young student from Basra told me when I was in Iraq in December. "We need to remove these barriers as soon as possible."

I couldn't have put it better myself.