Violence Against Religious Minorities in Iraq and Syria

We live in a contingent world and do not have the luxury of choosing our friends; we share a seat with anyone who offers. And we must never lose our focus on the individual amid the complexity of the global.

I have been part of this week's Church of England's General Synod panel presentation and discussion about the plight of persecuted minorities in Syria and Iraq (and beyond), which included a contribution by a Muslim scholar for the first time in the Synod's history.

The discussion covered a lot of ground and raised a number of questions, including asylum, justice, aid and media representation. Naturally, there was enormous concern about the appalling suffering of all sorts of minorities (including Muslims), but a particular concern about how we can support suffering Christians. To focus on one group is not to dismiss others.

From my point of view, the issues are focused. Back in August I wrote to the prime minister, David Cameron, and asked five precise questions about his government's policies in relation (primarily) to Iraq and Syria and the violence being inflicted so brutally by Islamic State. The question that still hangs over from this is that of articulating a clear overarching vision for UK policy. What is the governing principle that holds together our response to IS, Gaza, Boko Haram, Congo, Pakistan, etc. and makes the strategy cohere?

The beginning of an answer to that question is found in what I call a theological anthropology. What is a human being and why does a human being matter? So, having answered that, where does allowing impoverished African migrants to drown in the Mediterranean fit in? Where in our anthropology does economics trump humanity?

This is not merely an arcane religious, philosophical or academic concern. It is the ethical root of our political and 'humanitarian' action. Why do we think some people are worth saving and others not? Is it merely to do with resources available, or has it to do with a view of human beings that reduces people to mere economic units? Some are worth saving, and others are not; some have their stories told in the media - and get a response - where others do not.

So, how do we avoid simply reacting to the latest and loudest voice when it comes to (what has been described to me as) the competitive hierarchies of suffering? One way is to focus on those countries that sign up to the UN Charter on Human Rights, but ignore Article 18 on religious freedom. We seem to keep our relations with such countries, but need to apply suitable pressure where it counts.

Closer to home, a big question revolves around asylum - as discussed in the Synod discussion. The voices of Christian leaders in the Middle East have been mixed on whether asylum should be offered in the West. They are concerned that we should not encourage the removal - possibly permanently - of Christians from parts of the Middle East where they have lived for many centuries. This is a powerful argument, rooted in the commitment to serve the common good in places where diversity has been a source of peaceful coexistence for centuries. Remove Christians from the Middle East and we damage the future potential of those countries.

Equally, there is a moral obligation on countries such as ours to take in those who have been permanently displaced and who have nowhere to return to. As we contributed to the mess we now see in Iraq, we should take seriously our responsibility for the consequences of our actions. How we should tackle this asylum question without having it dragged into the utterly toxic domestic debates about immigration is a challenge.

Whatever else we do, we need to take seriously the forging of strong relations at home between people of different faiths. There is some suspicion around about interfaith dialogue that is represented as bland and blind to reality. My response to this is summed up in a simple story.

A few days after 9/11 I was invited (as the Archdeacon of Lambeth) to a meeting at Lambeth Town Hall in London. I got there late, slipped in and sat on the floor behind the door. An imam beckoned to me to join him on his seat. I declined. In fact, I declined three times before deciding not to cause an international incident, and joined him on the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable. The only way we could stay on the chair was to put our arms around the back and hang on to each other.

We live in a contingent world and do not have the luxury of choosing our friends; we share a seat with anyone who offers. And we must never lose our focus on the individual amid the complexity of the global.


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