The AMAR Foundation: Remedies to Religious Persecution, Lessons in Peacebuilding

Andrew Methven is The AMAR International Charitable Foundation’s Chief of Staff, based in its London office. The following is an edited summary of his remarks given 3 October 2022 at the ICLRS 29th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, which focused on “Religion’s Roles in Peacebuilding.”

The Work of the AMAR Foundation

The AMAR International Charitable Foundation was founded by our chairman, Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, in 1991 to aid the Marsh Arabs, who had been driven by Saddam Hussein to refugee camps in Lebanon and Iran. AMAR’s model was to provide practical help in the form of health care, through Primary Health Care Clinics (PHCCs), and education, through schools. It relied on using Iraqis’ own human capital—doctors and teachers—and raising funds at the market rate for them to run their own clinics and schools in the refugee camps. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, AMAR went on to establish 83 schools and 75 clinics in Baghdad and the Basra Marshes, now mostly handed over to local authorities in a sustainable way. Over the years, AMAR has delivered more than 10.5 million consultations. AMAR has also worked in other countries, including Romania/Ukraine, Somaliland, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Lebanon.

Since 2014, AMAR’s health-related assistance in northern Iraq has included

  • establishing five PHCCs, including several with the help of Latter-day Saint Charities, as part of AMAR’s partnership with that organization;
  • offering mental health and psychosocial support through three additional clinics;
  • expanding health care services in 2018 to cover 30 clinics, screening 30,000 patients each calendar month; and
  • continuing psychiatric services in the Essayan and Khanke IDP camps, the latter established in collaboration with Latter-day Saint Charities in 2014 and 2015.

Relatedly, the World Health Organization has identified a Mental Health (provision) Gap (mhGap) in low-income and lower middle-income countries like Iraq. Eighty percent of mental health presentations are of four standard low-level conditions that can be treated 80 percent of the time at the primary care level. This expands the capacity for treatment, given that Dohuk governorate had only four psychiatrists and has served as a catchment for hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs. Patients entering AMAR clinics undergo screening by social workers (Women Health Volunteers) to help inform treatment.

AMAR’s Work Relevant to Freedom of Religion or Belief

I note that, although I speak for and about the Yazidi people, a religious minority indigenous to the Kurdistan region of Western Asia, I do not pretend to do better than they themselves. But, alas, they are not at this symposium. The Yazidisare an ancient faith, 4000 years old; they see themselves as the first monotheistic faith. There are approximately 600,000 Yazidis, 200,000 of whom live overseas; 400,000 were driven from northern Iraq into KRI (Iraq’s Kurdistan Region) by Da’esh. Of these, 200,000 have returned to Mosul, but alas, 200,000, mostly from west of Mosul and Mount Sinjar, are still languishing in IDP camps in KRI.

Their faith is a syncretic mix of other religions from the region, and it is unclear who borrowed which part from whom. Their religion was formalised by their spiritual leader, Sheikh H’adi, in the twelfth century. The Yazidis are not People of the Book—that is, they are not an Abrahamic faith. Rather, they have an oral tradition, and nothing has been written down. Music is key and core to their religion, not just a beautiful adjunct. They believe music is how God placed the soul into Adam.

As “pagans” and not People of the Book, they were considered fair game by Da’esh when those forces rolled through KRI in 2014. Mosul fell; there were concerns that KRI’s capital of Erbil, and even Baghdad, would fall. Mount Sinjar (west of Mosul) was overrun. The Yazidis fled for their lives; 20,000 did not make it. The men and old women were murdered, the young women were dragged into captivity, and the boys were brainwashed. Several thousand survivors who were forced into sex slavery have returned, but several thousand are still missing.

For three years (2016–18), AMAR ran a project known as European Union Countering Religious Discrimination (EU-CRD), which worked from the bottom up and demonstrated how attitudes can shift. The project was carried out in a dozen colleges and universities in the southern three provinces of Iraq. The program consisted of rolling groups of sixth-form and undergraduate students attending a repeated six-week lunchtime seminar on comparative religion, in exchange for a free lunch. The syllabus was bespoke to Iraq. Parenthetically, a banner hangs over the Royal Air Force’s Number 1 Parachute School that reads “Knowledge Dispels Fear.” How many in the Shia heartlands had actually met a Christian, never mind a Sunni? There was a measurable attitudinal shift towards the positive by the end of the seminar. Though funding dried up, the program was highly regarded by the EU field team and was an example of how religion can help in peacebuilding.

The Windsor Dialogue conference series was cofounded in 2016 by Baroness Nicholson, Rt. Rev. Dr. Alastair Redfern (then Bishop of Derby), and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have since held six conferences, in St George’s House and Cumberland Lodge (hence “Windsor” Dialogue), Baghdad, and Cheyneygates in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. The ICLRS has sponsored and partnered the last three conferences, for which we are suitably grateful.

The aim of the series has been to explore causes and remedies of religious persecution and its links to forced migration. We have examined the parallels between the cases of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ own migration across America to Utah and the Yazidis’ flight from Mount Sinjar, amongst other instances. Professor Brett Scharffs, in particular, has been exploring the theme “From Persecution to Inclusion.” Alas, it has not been easy to draw common themes—a standard roadmap—as each case is sui generis. I close this section with the insight from the Windsor Dialogue that the key for refugees and IDPs has been the restoration of agency—the removal of the feeling of helplessness and, with it, the burden on mental health.

AMAR’s Efforts to Preserve Yazidi Music

In 2019, AMAR organised a project with the British Council to record and preserve Yazidi music, which includes both traditional and religious music. AMAR has qualitatively identified mental health benefits of traditional music to survivors, and we are still exploring the wider benefits of communal singing.

Regarding religious music, the Yazidis have a very small caste of priests (Qewals), comprised of approximately 10 individuals, who have a chant for every occasion in the annual cycle. The music has never been written down; rather, students will spend many years rote-learning the music to take up their role. Their music was at risk of irrecoverable loss while under threat from Da’esh. The golden thread from generation to generation could have been broken. AMAR worked with the Qewals to record the full annual cycle and deposit it in the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, for safekeeping. For the Yazidis, music is part of their religion, and religion is core to their sense of identity. Da’esh were attacking that sense of identity.

In passing, I note the overlap between cultural and religious protection. The 2022 International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, hosted by the UK government in London, was an opportunity to highlight the overlap between cultural protection and religious protection. Such overlap is seen in the preservation of Yazidi music, an outward, “cultural” manifestation of the Yazidis’ religion.


In discussing identity, I find a layers-of-the-onion model helpful: our sense of identity consists of many layers. I am, for example, son, father, brother, husband, British, and Scottish, amongst many other layers. To find common ground with someone, you must emphasise the common identities and humanity. I have talked much about Christianity, but in Iraq there are many different religions and ethnic groups who rub against each other. In this context, how can religion help? I am not a theologian, but it appears that almost all religions have common elements of peace, love, and reconciliation. One must find that common ground, stress the positive and overlap, and not become hung up on the negative.

When I attended the 2019 ICLRS conference on religious persecution at Oxford and tried to make sense of what had driven Da’esh, I found it helpful to map their motives to Thucydides’s three drivers of conflict: fear, honour, and interest. (I speak here about the 90 percent of Da’esh who were locals and cast their lot with the seeming winners.)

  • Fear, meaning “Your identity is a threat to my identity.”
  • Honour as a twisted interpretation of a theological imperative to defeat rival religions, that is, “It is your duty to kill apostates and unbelievers.”
  • Interest, meaning “I get to take your neighbour’s farm and daughters.”

Considering these models and motives, how can religion help peacebuilding?

First, religion can be a tool to reduce fear, or the perceived threat to sense of identity. Knowledge dispels fear, and so programmes like EU-CRD promote familiarity that make the unknown “known” and less threatening.

Second, we must challenge and question flawed and extreme ideologies and interpretations. Sustained information campaigns are needed to promote less confrontational interpretations.

Third, Cole Durham at the July 2022 Windsor Dialogue advised us to find proponents in other religions who recognise common strands of peace, love, and reconciliation and to engage with them—to reach across the divide.

Fourth, there is a need for sustained communications campaigns to change attitudes at the grassroots. I would very much like to have adequate funds to allow the inclusion of a sympathetic storyline about the Yazidis in an Iraqi national soap opera, or a televised visit to Iraq’s president by the Yazidi Ladies’ Peace Choir.

Fifth, high-level engagement is not enough. I have organised high-level statements of goodwill in Baghdad for Mandean, Shabak, Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, and Christian groups. Such efforts are a good start, but they are not enough; engagement in peacebuilding must also be grassroots, from the bottom up.