I’m afraid this is a very depressing story. I was in the House of Commons last week, after a trip to Iraq, giving a talk on what life was like for Christians under ISIS (in short, they had to convert, run or die). The MP hosting the meeting said he’d have to leave the room precisely at 7pm. Why? Because there was a vote on an important bill. I thought nothing of it. Only later did I find out what it was: an amendment to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. So, there we were in one room of the Commons discussing the fight to stay alive in the Middle East while, in another room, MPs were voting overwhelmingly for death.
And suddenly I wanted to be back in Iraq. I say that fully aware that it’s a horrible, bomb-blasted country that thousands of people want to leave – but one stark difference between a conflict area and the developed world is that things make a lot more sense there. There’s a bunch of men with guns and knives and they want to kill everyone they disagree with.
Sometimes confronting this shocking clarity is necessary to get one’s own mind in order. You return impatient with euphemisms. “Terminations”? “Medical procedures”? All false words, designed to pull a curtain over the truth and help us to carry on without caring – because that’s what we do in the West. We kill animals in abattoirs, we stick drug addicts in jail, put refugees in cages and we abort in clinics. In Iraq, you actually witness how language translates into action. When you see the rubble left by a drone, for example, or encounter a man whose arms were chopped off by a religious fanatic.
In Iraq, a society is tearing itself apart out in the open. Here we glimpse a society quietly self-harm. One despairs: it feels like we’re going backwards. In Dominion, his brilliant new book about Christianity’s shaping of the Western mind, Tom Holland notes that many Romans believed it was immoral to raise a disabled or an unwanted child, particularly a girl. They would leave those babies on rubbish tips or by the side of the road. One thing that distinguished the early Christians from pagans was that they would rescue the children they found on the dump, partly on the basis that Jesus himself was born in difficult circumstances. His followers wanted to be like Mary: taking risks, cherishing life.
What we have in 2019 isn’t just a return to that sharp contrast in attitudes towards human beings but also the sense that what Christianity demands is eccentric, beyond reason. Live without bombs?! Without abortion clinics?! Haha!
To go back to the Bill, the one glimmer of hope is that it might not take effect. To simplify a complicated constitutional situation, the Northern Ireland assembly is supposed to be solely charge of abortion law and the only reason it isn’t at the moment is because it has collapsed – the UK Parliament can only legislate this way so long as the assembly is absent. If it reconvenes before October 21, it will take back control and this wretched bill, God willing, won’t proceed.
But this detail actually makes the decision of those MPs to vote the way they did a whole lot worse. They didn’t have to do it. If they wanted an excuse not to, all they had to say was “I won’t vote to impose anything on the people of Northern Ireland without their consent.” Instead, either out of sincere belief that abortion is merciful or else to signal their own Roman virtue, they voted for more killing. About that, I cannot think what to say.
If I bring back a happy memory of Iraq, it’s of the Chaldean Mass celebrated at the cathedral in Erbil. The Chaldeans are Eastern Rite Catholics, so the service essentially took the same form as ours but for some fascinating local features. Men and women sit separately; they stand rather than kneel; they sing in that beautiful, melismatic style one normally associates with the Muslim call to prayer. There are, unfortunately, signs of growing Western influence, particularly the use of a piano to add soft-tone flourishes to the liturgy. It’s very odd: like someone opened a wine bar in a mosque.
We met lots of nuns, which is heartening. I’m struck by the faces of nuns: they’re always so young and fresh, whatever their age. My mother calls this “the faces of the innocent”, of people who get a good night’s sleep because they know they’re doing God’s work.
Sleep is hard in Erbil not because of any threat of violence but the crazy heat. Our hotel had air conditioning but power cuts switched it off in intervals – an electrical fault that gave riding in the lift an added air of danger.
I smoked. A lot. When you’re standing in a bombsite it seems poor taste to worry about your health.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor