Last weekend, three PhD students from our Emerging International Leaders programme spoke at a five-day conference on religious persecution and forced migration, hosted by the AMAR International Charitable Foundation at St George’s House, Windsor Castle.

The conference was attended by more than 60 representatives from humanitarian, religious, academic and government organisations. It addressed the challenge of religious persecution and the forced migration it imposes, with a particular focus on refugee camps and the ongoing genocide of Yazidi communities in northern Iraq.

Vali Huseyn from Azerbaijan, who researches educational assessment at Durham University, recently graduated from our year-long programme on freedom of religion or belief, alongside Hayde Rodarte from Mexico, who studies human rights law at Queen Mary, University of London, and Dee May Tan from Malaysia, who studies multimedia journalism at the University of Westminster.

Dee May, Hayde and Vali each had the opportunity to speak to delegates about their experiences on our Emerging International Leaders programme and to share their thoughts on applying the lessons they have learnt to interfaith work with young people, both in refugee centres and more widely in society.

Vali said: ‘The freedom of religion or belief retreats at Cumberland Lodge gave me a new framework for imagining how the three main pillars of society - government, non-profit organisations and business – can work together harmoniously, so that people of all faiths and none can contribute to society in meaningful ways. Addressing these kinds of issues in younger age can be instrumental in helping people to build higher goals in life and serve society in their countries of origin.

‘I think the presentation of practical approaches to peaceful existence within a tolerant, interfaith environment, through practical workshops involving people of diverse beliefs and innovative business partnerships, would be beneficial approaches to supporting the Yazidi youth.’

Improving interfaith awareness

Our Principal, Ed Newell, is a trustee of the AMAR Foundation, which provides medical and educational assistance to people fleeing from civil strife and violence in Iraq and works to rebuild civil society in the wake of war. 

He was also a speaker at the conference. He presented an educational paper that was produced last year as a result of an interfaith seminar at Cumberland Lodge, on the theology of the Yazidi religion.

Speaking after last week’s conference, he said: ‘The Yazidis in northern Iraq need our help now, amidst ongoing persecution. As well as providing humanitarian aid, we have been working closely with Yazidi representatives to improve awareness of their religion and culture and to help build bridges with people of other faiths.

‘As far as I am aware, the seminar at Cumberland Lodge last autumn, which involved Yazidi, Muslim and Christian fellows, was the first interfaith event of its kind. The conference at Windsor Castle last week was an ideal platform for sharing our learning from that seminar and thinking about how best to disseminate it.’

'Significant progress'

The conference was chaired by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, founder and chair of the AMAR Foundation, and attended by Yazidi leaders and representatives of the community who have been driven from their homes by ISIS/Daesh.

Baroness Nicholson said, ‘We must do all we possibly can to persuade all the religions of the world to accept the Yazidis. It is the only way that they will be able to survive and prosper long into the future. This second conference was highly successful and I believe we have made significant progress in making this aim a reality’.

Other guest speakers included: Rt Rev Dr Alastair Redfern (Lord Bishop of Derby), Elder Jeffrey R Holland (a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church), Professor Theodore Zeldin (the leading Oxford academic and author), Diar Fakhri Yousif (grandson of the Prince of the Yazidis), Professor Julia Bray (Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford), Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke (Joint President of the World Congress of Faiths), Dr Nezar Ismet Taib (Director General of the Dohuk Health Directorate in Dohuk in Iraq), Dr Ali Muthanna (General Director of the AMAR Foundation in Iraq) and Mr Timothy Lavelle (USAID).

The conference agreed a number of recommendations for preventing religious persecution and helping those displaced by conflict in the Middle East to safely return to their homes. 

Speakers called on the world’s religions to recognise Yazidism as a global faith. More than 400,000 Yazidis are now refugees in their own land, and over the centuries have suffered more than 70 genocides. Our Principal has been actively involved in seeking support from the Church of England on this matter, along with the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Freedom of religion or belief

Cumberland Lodge is committed to addressing the root causes and effects of social divisions in societies around the world. As part of this work we seek to bring people together to engage in constructive dialogue and creative thinking on means of protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief and combatting religious persecution in all its forms.

A new cohort of 50 international students from around the world, all doctoral students based at British universities, will join our Emerging International Leaders programme in December 2017, ahead of three residential study retreats at the Lodge, to be held in the first half of 2018.

Our Emerging International Leaders programme on freedom of religion or belief is supported by the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.