Sarah Jane Weaver: What I learned in Iraq and in 2020 about religious essentialism

On a dusty, hot day in 2014, women lined up outside the medical clinic at the Bajed Kandala 2 camp in northern Iraq. Their faces were marked by the elements, their long, white dresses darkened by the dust from their journey.

One spoke of the road that brought her to that place, just miles from the borders of Syria and Turkey, after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) drove her from her village. Talking with the help of a translator, she wondered if she would be better off dead.

On that day, Bajed Kandala 1 and Bajed Kandala 2 were populated by thousands of Yazidi women. In that place, they had found shelter, water and a daily loaf of bread — baked in ovens on the property.

As we talked, I learned the woman had worn the same white dress every day since arriving in the camp.

She wept when Nemam Ghafouri, a Muslim surgeon who ran the Bajed Kandala medical clinic, gave her a new white dress — made the same as she would have made it, if she could. Sewn with fabric provided by Latter-day Saint Charities in partnership with the British-based charity AMAR, the dress was a visual symbol of her deep religious identity.

A Yazidi woman waits to receive a new white dress, made and donated by Latter-day Saint Charities.
A Yazidi woman waits to receive a new white dress, made and donated by Latter-day Saint Charities. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

Fundamental to helping her through the crisis was learning where she came from and what she believed. She needed more than food, water and shelter to become whole. She needed religion.

She and other Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS for that belief.

Now she smiled. The new white dress she had just received was essential.

As the COVID-19 crisis accelerated this year, governments across the globe acted — closing borders, enacting shelter-in-place orders, and restricting religious worship services and other large group gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In the weeks that followed, those same governments defined essential services. In some cases, jurisdictions deemed bars as essential, while religious services were classified as nonessential.

Speaking at the G20 Interfaith Forum, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the ongoing pandemic has demonstrated that some government officials fail to understand how and why religion is fundamental to the lives of billions of people.

“How secular officials understand religion and religious people deeply influences how they treat religious institutions and believers in a time of crisis,” he said. “The deeper and more respectful the understanding, the more legitimate and effective public policy responses can be. Surely at least part of the crisis of legitimacy in the response to COVID-19 arises from the failure of some policymakers to account properly for the centrality of faith in the lives of believers.”

Church leaders had addressed this critical need long before the pandemic. Two years ago, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said faith is just as important to many refugees as water, food and air. “By preserving a person’s faith, we help preserve their future,” he said, addressing the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, England, on July 2, 2018.

The Yazidi women I met in Iraq are part of the Kurdish ethno-religious community. Dr. Ghafouri is Muslim. When I asked her about the religious tensions that could exist between them, she referenced an interaction with a Yazidi boy she once met.

Nemam Ghafouri, a Muslim doctor, and Peggy Plumb of Latter-day Saint Charities, give a white dress to Yazidi women at Bajed Kandala 2 in Iraq.
Nemam Ghafouri, a Muslim doctor, and Peggy Plumb of Latter-day Saint Charities, give a white dress to Yazidi women at Bajed Kandala 2 in Iraq. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

“The first time he introduced himself to me, he said, ‘I am human.’ He called himself human,” she recalled.

Beyond every anger, there is a heart, Ghafouri said. “I want to reach there.”

It is a matter of dignity.

Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an address on religious freedom broadcast Oct. 28, said dignity is the principle upon which human rights stand.

At this time when the world seems to be a fragile place, “The most deep and true things about us are our faith and our relationships,” said Elder Soares.

Also speaking during the G20 Interfaith Forum in October, Sister Sharon Eubank of the Relief Society general presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities spoke of these relationships. She praised the ongoing work of Baroness Emma Nicholson and the Windsor Dialogue “to bring Yazidi religious leaders for the first time into close contact with other faith leaders in Iraq, to explain their doctrine, to reduce fear about their worship, to heal old wounds.”

When Baroness Nicholson was asked how she got the Yazidi women to come, she said, “I asked them.”

Elder Bednar said the world has seemingly been filled recently with strong wake-up calls. “The buzzer on the COVID-19 alarm clock just continues to ring and ring and ring,” he said during the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School.

The COVID-19 crisis, he said, demonstrates the fragility of religious freedom and the need to shore it up.

“In our understandable desire to combat COVID-19, we, too, as a society may have forgotten something about who we are and what is most precious,” he concluded. “Now is the time for us to heed the wake-up call, to remember and to act.”

It is a lesson I learned in northern Iraq in 2014, as I walked across the Bajed Kandala 2 camp. I asked a Yazidi woman baking naan bread in a tandoor (a traditional clay oven) if I could buy some of her bread. The woman — wearing a soiled white dress, demonstrating a clear understanding of her religious identity, and communicating what it takes for all of us to overcome crisis — said, “I don’t sell my bread, but I am willing to share it.”