Salt Lake Tribune

May 26, 2006

Relief Society intrigues Iraqi women

Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune
An Iraqi delegation including Azhar Abdul Karem Al-Shakly, far right, minister of state for women affairs, visited Utah recently to study the structure of the LDS Relief Society. Amid the chaos and destruction that overwhelm daily life in Baghdad, many Iraqi women have been searching for a way to build a network that could harness their collective strength. But how? Joan Betros, who was working in Baghdad two years ago as the director of women's and children family television programming for Iraqi Media Network, believed she knew just such a vehicle for women - the LDS Relief Society.

Launched in 1842 to serve the sick and poor, the LDS Relief Society is now one of the oldest and largest women's organization in the world. It has more than 5.2 million members in 170 countries, with a chapter in every LDS congregation that meets Sundays to hear lessons on theology, family issues and social relations.

The society also has "visiting teachers," or pairs of women assigned to visit every woman in the nearly 13 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at least every three months. The teams bring a spiritual message to those they visit, as well as assessing the women's physical, emotional or spiritual needs. They then report the needs back to a supervisor who tries to find ways to help.

When Betros described this system to an Iraqi woman who worked on the Baghdad Advisory Board, the woman responded enthusiastically, saying, "We have to have this model in our country to heal the family and unite women."

So Betros spent the next months and years trying to figure out how to share the Relief Society's strength and structure without its religious content and without using the church's name. She knew that proselytizing among Muslims is strictly forbidden and that the LDS Church would never breach such prohibitions. The answer was a nonprofit, nonreligious organization called FUTURE, Families United Toward Universal Respect, which could foster discussion about families with women from a variety of backgrounds.

Earlier this month, Betros' efforts paid off.

On May 7, a delegation of Iraqi women, led by Azhar Abdul Karem Al-Shakly, the minister of state for women affairs, arrived in the U.S. to spend a week studying the Relief Society, its programs, materials and humanitarian efforts. The model is available to anyone outside the faith.

In addition to Azhar, the delegation included a law professor, a sociologist, an English teacher, the coordinator for the Iraq Handicapped Society and the president of the Nintu Society for Humanitarian Assistance. Each delegate was paired with a Mormon volunteer to learn how such pairs work. One of the buddies was Joyce Bennett, wife of Sen. Bob Bennett.

"They were impressed by their buddies' willingness to give their time for one year to set this up," Betros said. "They could see that through volunteerism, there is no corruption."

The group started in Virginia, where members spent two days at Southern Virginia University, a small school run by LDS businessmen. Organizers provided a flow chart based on "visiting teaching" and showed them how it might work in Iraq, Betros said Wednesday.

They presented lectures on hygiene, depression, literacy, child-rearing, home management, keeping a budget, decorating and genealogy. The women received a generic "Family Home Evening" manual with examples of lessons and activities for a weekly activity.

"We learned so much about how to make families stronger," Azhar said. "I wish I could do this visiting teachers in my country. I wish to...tell how families are strong in this country, how families take care of each other."

Three days later, the delegation flew to Utah, where they toured LDS Welfare Square and Humanitarian Center in downtown Salt Lake City, heard a concert by the International Children's Choir, (including three songs in Arabic), discussed the situation in Iraq with Brigham Young University professors, dined with General Relief Society President Bonnie Parkin, shopped and attended a taping of "Music and the Spoken Word" with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

On Mother's Day, the delegation flew to Denver, where they met with government officials who taught them how to structure city councils. The trip was funded by private donations and the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Denver is a sister city to Baghdad.

"It was a whole menu of wonderful new experiences for them," Betros said. "It's strictly up to them how they want to implement these ideas."

Nuha N.S. Ahmad Al-Algha, president of the Nintu Society, particularly liked the Humanitarian Center but was also drawn to the church's vast genealogical holdings. "If you know your roots, you know your life. We are starting to lose family ties in Iraq. Everyone is running for himself."

Programs such as FUTURE, Nuha said, are "the way to build a new Iraq."


(c) 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.