AN ENCOUNTER with an eight-year-old girl who had seen her father and brothers executed by Islamic State, and a visit to a mosque rebuilt after being destroyed by Coalition forces, are some of the memories that the Revd Bonnie Evans-Hill is bringing back from a visit to Iraq.
Ms Evans-Hills, interfaith adviser for the diocese of St Albans, was invited to Iraq by the Hikmeh Center for Dialogue and Cooperation, founded by Ayatollah Al-Sayyed Al-Hakeem, a Shia scholar. Attending its conference was a means of having face-to-face conversations, she said on Tuesday, and showing that “the rest of the world is interested, and here to listen”.
Among the meetings that Ms Evans-Hills will remember is one with Amal, aged eight, who was living in a camp for internally displaced people located between Karbala and Najaf. She had seen her father and brothers killed by IS.
“The only thing I can do is remember her, and tell about her: this tiny little girl in the middle of a desert camp, having witnessed unspeakable horrors,” Ms Evans-Hills said. “All any of us could do for her was to walk away with a promise to remember.”
Most of the families living at the camp include women whose husbands and older sons have been killed. On her return to Hertfordshire, Ms Evans-Hills plans to contact Iraqi women of her acquaintance, to seek their advice about supporting these women to develop income-generating opportunities.
She is returning with a message from those she met: “Everyone in Iraq — it doesn’t matter what faith they are — is so afraid of Daesh and the sense of the West not really understanding how much people are suffering.”
It will be a “long struggle” to build acceptance from people of other faiths, she says, and to heal in the wake of conflict. During a visit to a mosque, her hosts did not mention that the original ancient building had been destroyed by Coalition forces.
Struck by the generosity of Iraqis towards internally displaced persons and refugees, she has reflected on the contrast with the West, and also on the challenges that face the churches that are caring for them.
She is aware that Syrian and Iraqi Christians in Sweden feel “real animosity” towards Syrian and Iraqi Muslims, and the Church has to “keep peace between them.”
“Whenever people are suffering, it is our duty as a Christian to care for them and listen to stories,” she said. “Sometimes, they will be contradictory, be accusatory; all we can really do is listen, and try to bring comfort and healing. We cannot make it all better. But we can listen, and just remember that, if one person is suffering from conflict, so is everybody else in that conflict.”