Posts Tagged ‘Vicar of Baghdad’

Canon Andrew White at St Saviour’s

August 19, 2013
book signing

book signing

It is strange, I had been thinking of meeting with Canon Andrew White, and early hours Sunday morning, I found I had a message that he was at St Saviour’s Church in Guildford.

I had not planned on being in Guildford, but a change of plans, afternoon in Guildford, lunch in Guildford, maybe a walk along the River Wey, then wander along to St Saviour’s for the evening service.

Not quite according to plan. I did not get the roast pork I was looking forward to for lunch, nor did I get my walk along the river, but I did experience a black church called The Upper Room meeting in St Nicolas, and had afternoon tea at Glutton & Glee.

I arrived at St Saviour’s more than half an hour early and was told I was first one.

I was not sure I had the correct evening, as no mention on their website, but on arrival I saw a space had been reserved for Andrew White and there was a notice on the church door.

The service started with music. During rehearsal, they were awful, but during the service far better.

We were then told of the situation in Egypt, or rather were were told half truths.

It is good that a church is recognising the plight of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East as too often they feel ignored and the churches in the West do not give a damn, but what we should also recognise is that the Christians in Egypt especially their leadership, are not a reliable witness to events on the ground and will give a partisan view.

We should not forget, that when people occupied Tahrir Square and refused to leave until Mubarak was overthrown, those who supported Mubarak to the bitter end and condemned the brave people in Tahrir Square, were the leaders of the Christian Church in Egypt. Neither should we forget that Muslims and Christian stood shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir Square.

Morsi betrayed the revolution. He tried to Islamise what is a secular country, betrayal of rights for women, installation of cronies to positions of power. In other words, no different to every corrupt government in the Middle East.

20 million Egyptians took to the streets to overthrow Morsi. A lot of rubbish in the West about the democratic overthrow of Morsi. The will of the people was executed. That is democracy. Democracy is not rule by unaccountable elites, the people reduced to election fodder and having no further say.

But, the overthrow of Morsi, has been hijacked by a military junta.

Attention was drawn to a letter from Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis. This proved to be little more than a propaganda sheet for the brutal military junta, demonisation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

St Saviour’s need to be very careful that they are not being used as unwitting tools of the military junta.

Morsi supporters, and it is not only the Muslim Brotherhood, have every right to peaceful protest. The response of the junta, to massacre in cold blood several hundred peaceful protesters.

Yes, there has been attacks on Christians, on churches, but these attacks, pre-date the overthrow of Morsi, they are nothing new.

The slaughter of innocent protesters will have only one consequence, it will open the void for Islamic terrorists to step into.

We must hope, that the crimes against humanity being committed by the military junta, are documented and they are brought to justice, in the meantime, all Egyptians must unite to overthrow the junta, otherwise Egypt will descend into bloody civil war.

Coverage of Tahrir Square by mainstream media was poor. Post-overthrow of Morsi much better.

For good coverage turn to Democracy Now, Russia Today and Al Jazeera. On twitter follow Sharif Kouddous.

The pastor leading the service, invited Andrew White to join him, and they discussed what had led Andrew White to where he is today, leading a church in Iraq.

Andrew explained his interest in the Middle East had started when he studied at an ultra-Orthodox university in Israel.

Andrew White started from when he was a curate, then a vicar, and how he had then been asked to head the peace and reconciliation unit at Coventry Cathedral.

Formed out of the ashes of the bombed Coventry Cathedral, the focus had been Europe. Andrew refocused on the Middle East. He had acted as envoy for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, engaging in dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians and encouraging them to talk to each other.

Diagnosed with MS, he was asked to step down from what he was doing. His response was to take over the running of St George’s in Baghdad. His assistant was Justin Welby, now Archbishop of Canterbury.

The church costs over $175,000 a month to run. They have no money, no reserves. They rely entirely on donations, on people inviting Andrew to talk at their church, on buying his books.

The money given on Sunday, and during the week, will all go to FRRME (of which Andrew White is the Founding President).

The church has a school, a medical clinic, feeding programmes, all paid for through donations. All the programmes the church runs are free to all.

Beside the work at the church, Andrew acts as Embassy Chaplain, works on peace and reconciliation between the various factions, advises on security.

FRRME was formed to support the work in Iraq and the Middle East.

Following the reading of the lesson, Andrew White was asked to give the sermon.

Andrew started by blessing the congregation in Ameraic, the language used by Jesus, and the language still used in the Iraqi Church.

His theme was Matthew 24:6-8

You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

For people of Guildford, words in the Bible, for people of Iraq, daily occurrence.

There are rumours of war, there is war, there is bombing, there is killing.

Of the church over 1,250 have been killed.

When people have lost everything they have everything.

The church in Iraq is filled with joy.

To love your friends is easy. We have to learn to love those who are our enemies.

Andrew was once kidnapped. When he looked around, he saw severed fingers and toes.

He has to deal with his friends, who bomb and kill.

When dealing with one of he founders of Hamas, he invited him to dinner. He convinced him to work with a rabbi. When accused of being a Zionist, the founder of Hamas said no, he was walking the path of peace and reconciliation, a very difficult path to walk.

Often asked: How do you deal with Muslims? Easy we love them, we welcome them. The church is over 6,000 people, of which over 600 are Muslim.

When you love can also be very painful, when you see the people you love killed.

Andrew has three adopted Iraqi children. One, Lina, now also his personal assistant, has recently become engaged.

The service lasted almost two hours, but it seemed much shorter. I have known half hour service seem longer.

Too many people spend their lives griping about their lives and never getting off their backsides. Andrew is the exact opposite, faces danger every day, sees more tragedy in a day than most people would see in their lifetime, and yet, he is full of hope, full of joy, and always willing to take risks.

He said when people shake hands and say take care, no, they should shakes hands and and say take risks.

It is unfortunate the service was not filmed. As much my fault as I did not think to ask. It has at least been recorded, or at least the sermon recorded, and possibly the exchange at the beginning. This will be available on the church website.

Andrew then signed books:

I gave Andrew a copy of Manuscript Found in Accra. He said he enjoyed Aleph. He asked me did Paulo Coelho know the new Pope? I said I did not think so, but at a press conference in Athens, Paulo Coelho had been asked two questions, his thoughts on the Catholic Church and of the new Pope. He said there was much wrong with the Catholic Church and that he had high hopes of the new Pope implementing much needed reform.

I also gave Andrew a letter I have had in possession for many months, which a lady had entrusted me to give to him.

A chat with Andrew.

I came away with several signed copies of his latest book, Father, Forgive, one for me, the others I will have pleasure in giving away.

Next year, Andrew is to be awarded the William Wilberforce Prize.

Under siege but vicar of Baghdad is still spreading the word

April 7, 2012
Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White

Andrew White got his blue Iraqi badge on Wednesday – the pass that allows him to move around Baghdad. The Anglican Chaplain to Iraq supported the US invasion – he still thinks Saddam shipped his weapons of mass destruction off to Syria before the Anglo-American armies arrived – and as someone who used an American pass to get about, the end of the occupation must have contained a special irony. “From the day the Americans left, their passes didn’t work any more. I couldn’t do anything. But now I’ve got the new Iraqi badge. It’s fine.”

White says he has even asked for Iraqi nationality. “They won’t let me. Iraqis come to London and five years later they’re British. I’ve been here for 14 years. Why can’t I be Iraqi?” I ponder this one. He’s of Anglo-Indian stock and looks a lot more Iraqi than many Iraqis. But I doubt if his citizenship – his wife’s great-great grandfather was foreign secretary Joseph Chamberlain – is exactly at the top of the al-Maliki agenda in Baghdad.

I like Andrew White. He’s larger than life, brave, a combination of a quote-a-day preacher, Martin Luther, Terry Waite and a Vicar for All Seasons. I find myself gasping at his mixture of frankness and wire-tripping, criticising the Iraqi Christian clergy as well as Muslim prelates – “That’s the problem with this place, everyone thinks they’re in charge” (that was his Maundy Thursday sermon) – and I suspect he might be more popular with his friends in Islam than his brothers in Christianity.

His work for Muslim-Christian reconciliation (in Baghdad, Alexandria, Copenhagen, Coventry, you name it) while ministering to a flock in Baghdad he simply can’t protect is somewhat close to that old cliché: awesome. He’s lost members of his church council to kidnappers (11 in one day in 2005, between Fallujah and Ramadi, and never seen again), seen his flock murdered in the streets, even his own security guards killed, 270 of his congregation murdered in five years; for months, he lived in the notorious Green Zone, freighted by armoured cars and armoured men to and from St George’s Church in Haifa Street.

St George’s is Andrew White’s cathedral, his parish, his “heaven” – his word, and I’ll keep it that way – and was built to commemorate the British and Commonwealth dead of the 1914-18 war. Its fine stained-glass regimental windows were long ago shattered by bombs, and even the remaining plaque to “one million dead who fell in the Great War” has been gashed by shrapnel.

In 2009, a bomb in Haifa Street that killed 164 Iraqis sent arms and legs sailing through the empty windows of St George’s. Now its garden boasts a small pyramid to commemorate eight Danish soldiers killed in Iraq between 2005 and 2008, a tiny reminder of the cost in Western blood of the Bush-and-Blair arrogance of power. A Christian population of one and a half million has been reduced to 200,000, courtesy of a born-again Christian from Texas.

But then up pops the ornery side of Andrew White. He patiently explains that his church received financial help from the Americans under Bush. “That all stopped when Obama took over.” The collapse of the Christian minority is a tragedy which the West has still not faced. It is now scattered across Sweden, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, America … Andrew White now runs a reconciliation council which includes Yazidis, Turkmen, Mandiens (followers of John the Baptist), Messihis, Faili (Shia) Kurds, you name it. He regards senior members of the Sunni and Shia clergy as his friends. The fatwa against all sectarian killings was partly his work.

But then suddenly, White becomes the country parson, tut-tutting at our lack of faith. General Angus Maude (“liberator” of Great War Baghdad) and Gertrude Bell, one of the inventors of Churchill’s Iraq, are both interred in the British cemetery. “Maude only came to our church once and then he died of cholera (he didn’t boil his milk) and he is buried in our cemetery. Gertrude Bell is buried in our cemetery – but never came to our church!” Suddenly, White’s the imaginary Vicar of Aynsford (where he was born), questioning our need for Christian burial if we lack Christian faith. I smile weakly. White also cares for Iraq’s seven remaining Jews, angrily telling me that a US cable released by WikiLeaks identified all by name, complete with their home addresses. “They are quite frightened,” he says. As the French say: J’imagine.

It’s impossible not to admire White. He’s a media man to his bones, of course, but he’s also a scholar, a former medical doctor who studied Hebrew at Cambridge, Rabbinics at Mea Sharim, speaks Hebrew and used to speak Yiddish. In Iraq, most Christians speak Aramaic. White points out that there is a Jewish shrine for Ezekial (Dhu Alkafel for Muslims) between Babylon and Najaf, now a Shia shrine. “The imam from there comes to this room and chats to me.”

At 47, White suffers from multiple sclerosis and has endured years of pain, a courage that must impress the Muslim and Christian members of his High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. But there’s always something in the wings when you talk to Andrew White. He signs his book, The Vicar of Baghdad, for me and casually remarks that the then Iraqi prime minister used this very pen to sign Saddam Hussein’s death warrant. “Of course, I didn’t know he was going to use it for that!” Andrew White says. He hands me the pen. For historians, it is an expensive black Pelikan. I leave through his Iraqi security checkpoints, one after another. He lives in a prison within a prison within a prison within a prison. His words, not mine.

— Robert Fisk

Published in The Independent.

Robert Fisk is a rare example of a British journalist of integrity. He tells the truth about the Middle East.

Canon Andrew White is author of Faith Under Fire, President of FRRME, the Anglican priest of St George’s in Baghdad and a Middle East Peacemaker.

He has recently been awarded the highly prestigious First Freedom Award.

Faith Under Fire has been shortlisted as the Christian Book of 2012. It is open to vote on-line for your favourite book, but somewhat dumb you have to vote for a childrens book too even though you may have no views. Also badly designed website, link does not go direct to voting form.

It had been hoped to hold a three-day International Peace Conference on Iraq, Light in Darkness, in Brighton, bringing young people from Iraq but this has collapsed due to lack of funding.

Interview with Canon Andrew White in Canada

January 17, 2012

Excellent interview with Canon Andrew White on 100huntley.com talking about Biblical references to Iraq (there are lots) and the current situation in Iraq both from a political and religious viewpoint.

How many people were able to count Yasser Arafat as a close personal friend, someone who got an invite to a five-year-old’s birthday party? How many churches have angels and the wheels within wheels as described by Ezekiel present?

Canon Andrew White is the Anglican priest of St George’s in Baghdad and a Middle East Peacemaker.

Last week he was awarded the highly prestigious First Freedom Award.

Books mentioned:

Faith Under Fire has been shortlisted as the Christian Book of 2012. It is open to vote on-line for your favourite book, but somewhat dumb you have to vote for a childrens book too even though you may have no views. Also badly designed website, link does not go direct to voting form.

Faith Under Fire

January 7, 2012
Faith Under Fire

Faith Under Fire

Don’t take care, take risks. — Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Donald Coggan

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

There cannot be any such word as ‘can’t’ here in Iraq. We have to persevere, and we do. And in everything we see the glory of God. — Canon Andrew White

When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong. — Archbishop William Temple

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. — 1 John 4:18

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. — 2 Timothy 1:17

Anaesthetist, curate, parish priest, head of peace and reconciliation unit at Coventry Cathedral, Middle East peace negotiator, Vicar of Baghdad, not bad for a CV.

Some people are lucky, or so those who consider themselves unlucky bemoan, but it is not that, it is taking risks, drawing upon what life gives us.

If we look at the Life of Charles Darwin, Origin of Species did not just happen, nor was it because he happened to be at the right place at the right time (though that helped). It was because he took what life offered, he drew upon the experience gained in his earlier life.

The same is true of Canon Andrew White, he takes risks where others would hesitate, he draws upon the experience life has given him, all done with a love of God and love for those who he serves, underwritten in the faith in the One God, or G-d as he would write.

Much of my work in religious sectarianism is simply about showing love to the unlovely.

Those who commit the worst atrocities are usually those with nothing to lose.

It is easy to talk to the good guys, not so easy the bad guys, those whose hands drip with the blood of the innocents. But to make progress we have to talk to everyone.

The founder and leader of Hamas was beyond the pale. He changed from a man of violence to an advocate of peace. When he died, even Members of the Knesset attended his funeral.

At the age of ten Andrew White knew what he wanted, knew where he was heading. He wanted to be both an anaesthetist and a priest.

You cannot be both, he was told, and in any case, with your background, Pentecostal and Baptist, you cannot be a priest as they do not have them.

Needs will or looked at another way, God provides. He became both, first an anaesthetist, then an Anglican priest. Part of his theological studies were spent in Jerusalem studying Judaism. All of which has prepared him well for the work in the Middle East.

The world I occupied then is vastly different to the one I occupy now, but nevertheless I learnt some important lessons – not least the ability to react quickly in situations. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest you have to react immediately. When someone points a gun at you, you must also react immediately. If you have to think about dodging a bullet, it has already hit you. On the streets of Baghdad, my medical training has probably been of more use to me than my theological training at Cambridge.

Christianity in Iraq has a long and proud history. It is not an alien religion brought in or imposed by the West. Christian Fundamentalists who rode in on the coattails of the Americans like modern day carpet baggers did a huge amount of damage. It made Christians seem tools of the West. The Crusades are still in common memory. Conversely Iraqis were surprised to find American soldiers were Christians with crosses around their necks as they thought Christianity a Middle Eastern if not Iraqi religion.

House of Lords debates the plight of Christians in the Middle East
Crass stupidity by Christian fundamentalists leads to persecution and massacre of Christians in the Middle East
Christianity A History: The Crusades

St George’s in Baghdad was built by and for the Brits. It now serves Iraqis, all are welcome.

Those who can, have long fled Iraq. Those left are the poor and dispossessed. When all is lost, faith is all that is left.

Lord Hylton on a visit to Baghdad described St George’s as a church of the future. A church that welcomes everyone and everyone is made welcome, be they Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, be they Christian or Muslim, where everyone is loved and shares their love. A place where angels appear. A place of peace and tranquillity in a war-torn country.

Angels? The angels first appeared in 2007, and have remained since.

Another of our ‘gains’ has been the visible presence of angels. I had read of angels in the Bible, of course, and I, and others, had regularly prayed for their protection in Iraq. But until three years ago I had never actually seen one. Towards the end of 2007, quite suddenly, we started to see angelic forms. They look very much like we’d expect angels to look – like males with wings – but they are strange figures, large and translucent. We take them very seriously.

Occasionally strange objects like wheels within wheels are seen. They only appear within St George’s, at some other churches in Iraq and at Ezekiel Tomb.

Wheels within wheels

It is not known what they are, they are very prolific. In photos they appear as blobs.

Ezekiel saw something similar (Ezekiel 1:15-21):

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.

When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.

Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

St George’s used to cost $600 a year to run, it now costs $175,000 a month to run. It is not only the running cost of the church, there is an associated clinic, education, food and welfare. All of which has to be raised through fund raising and donations.

Why do people suffer, why is Iraq descending into Hell, why is Canon Andrew White afflicted with multiple sclerosis?

Sorry Sir my dear Jesus , we came to you with, black gown
The Truth as Iraq descends into Hell

God moves in mysterious ways.

I am aware that God trains and prepares us through all of life’s experiences. Sometimes He sees fit to impose on us things we do not see as ‘the best’ for our lives, but He sees the greater purpose and allows such things as so that we will do what He wants us to do oe go where He wants us to go.

It is often those who face the greatest adversity who share the greatest love. Canon Andrew White in Iraq is a good example of this.

St Paul pleaded with God to remove the thorn from his side, God responded (1 Corinthians 12:19):

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

God speaks in quiet whispers, we have to listen with care.

I often recommend to people three books, well I actually recommend far more than three books, but these three books are special because they compliment and support each other – Love Wins, The Shack, Aleph – to which I now add a fourth, Faith Under Fire, as what we read in the first three and at times seems mystical, not real, far-fetched, is an everyday occurrence in Iraq.

Aleph is a strange mystical book, it cannot be for real, we think, and yet Canon Andrew White recounts far stranger mystical happenings.

Love Wins tells of the love God has for each and everyone one of us. Canon Andrew White tells of the love in Baghdad.

In The Shack we see the mystery of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness. We see this happening in Iraq.

Faith Under Fire has been shortlisted as the Christian Book of 2012. It is open to vote on-line for your favourite book, but somewhat dumb you have to vote for a childrens book too even though you may have no views. Also badly designed website, link does not go direct to voting form.

Canon Andrew White is the vicar of St Geoge’s Church in Baghdad and President of FRRME.

Iraq
The Vicar of Baghdad
Suffer the Children

Canon Andrew White awarded International First Freedom Award

June 24, 2011
Canon Andrew White - Photo Reuters/Oleg Popov

Canon Andrew White - Photo Reuters/Oleg Popov

To be considered a worthy recipient and to stand alongside such venerable past beneficiaries – me, a priest in downtown Baghdad – is just a wonderful honor. — Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White has been named as this year’s recipient of the prestigious International First Freedom Award for his extraordinary commitment to peace-keeping and religious freedom in Iraq.

The award was announced by the First Freedom Center, an American institute that seeks to advance freedom of religion and conscience.

President of the center Ambassador Randolph Bell said:

“We are proud to name Canon White the winner of the International First Freedom Award. This prestigious award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the advancement of religious freedom – the freedom of conscience.

“The judging committee unanimously selected him because of all he has done to advance religious freedom; his longstanding and highly effective commitment to this fundamental human right.”

Canon White will be presented with the award in Virginia in January 2012.

Anglican Priest Given Prestigious Religious Freedom Award
‘Vicar of Baghdad’ Receives Religious Freedom Award

Andrew White ‘ the vicar of Baghdad’: ‘The vast majority of muslims are our friends’

March 31, 2011
Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White leans over his desk and – with a mischievous glint in his eye – prepares to deliver what I now suspect is a signature move when greeting new guests. Handing over a copy of one of his books, his face breaks into a wide grin as he asks: “Would you like me to sign that for you? I tell you what, I’ll use this pen. It was the same one used to sign Saddam Hussein’s death sentence.”

Such a macabre piece of historical memorabilia might appear an unusual keepsake for an Anglican priest but then Canon White – the so-called Vicar of Baghdad – is no ordinary clergyman. As pastor to St George’s, the only Anglican church in Iraq, Canon White has been on the front line of the most violent and barbaric persecution of a Christian minority in living memory.

Cut off from the streets of Baghdad by blast-proof barriers, razor wire and round-the-clock security, St George’s is one of the few churches still able to operate weekly services for the Iraqi capital’s rapidly diminishing Christian congregation. Scores of his worshippers have been kidnapped or murdered, and militants have routinely tried to storm the complex which lies outside the comparative safety of the Green Zone.

Canon White, 47, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has been shot at and kidnapped but still he returns, making sure to spend at least three weeks of every month with an embattled congregation that refer to him as their abouna (father).

The 6ft 2in, bowtie-loving priest spoke on a brief visit back to his picturesque home in a quiet Hampshire village which he shares with his wife and two boys (for security reasons he asks us not to give their names or location). The stopover was part publicity tour for his new book Faith Under Fire, part a chance to catch up with the family.

The Hampshire house is a pretty, single-storey family home in a quiet curving cul-de-sac, containing a theologian’s study filled with books and crucifixes from across the world. Work is a war zone 3,000 miles away, where Canon White is protected by 30 security guards. A place of sandbags and terror, particularly for Iraqi Christians, whose population has plummeted in the past 20 years from 1.4 million to just 300,000.

The fountain pen, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki borrowed for a couple of days and used to sign Saddam’s death warrant, is a way of breaking the ice before talking about a subject that will inevitably be gruesome. We meet just days after Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member, was gunned down in Islamabad and it is inevitable that the conversation quickly turns to violent persecution of Christians. “All over the world there are increasing threats against Christians,” Canon White says. “Bhatti’s death is deeply disturbing. But when you’re living in the midst of the fire like in Baghdad, it’s really what happens there that concerns you. We have had 123 people killed in Baghdad since November.”

Last year in fact was a particularly brutal year for Iraq’s Christians and 2011 looked like it was going to be no different. But in the past few weeks the killings have stopped.

As head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, Canon White has built unparalleled relationships with Iraq’s senior Sunni and Shia clerics. In late January he gathered them in Copenhagen to issue a joint fatwa (religious edict) condemning any attacks on minority communities. “Until then Christians were being killed every day,” he says. “After the fatwa the killings stopped. It’s crucial to remember that the vast majority of Muslims we work with, they are our friends. We can only do what we do with their help.”

When he is not administering to his flock, it is these kinds of delicate negotiations between Iraq’s religious power players that occupy much of Canon White’s time in Baghdad. He has been a key negotiator in kidnappings including that of the IT worker Peter Moore, who was released, and Ken Bigley, who was killed. He has himself been taken hostage, held in a room where freshly severed fingers and toes littered the floor, and has negotiated for the release of countless Iraqis. The violence he has seen is harrowing. Does he ever lose his faith? “Never,” he says. “If anything, my faith has got stronger.” It’s a reply you often hear from religious people in conflict zones – but how can religion be a force for good when it does so much harm in these situations?

“I remind myself that if religion is a force for bad it is also a force for good,” he says. “If religion is the cause of this horrific violence then it is also the cure. The only way you will be able to stop this violence is engage with Iraq’s religions in a religious way. The best thing we can do is work with the Islamic leaders as most of them are not terrorists.”

Canon White places the blame for the violence against his congregants squarely at the feet of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, the primarily foreign militant network inspired by Osama bin Laden. “Those who instigate violence are mainly from outside,” he says. “There are certain people you simply can’t work with and the al-Qa’ida people fall into that category.”

But he is equally infuriated by Christian bigots and publicity seekers – such as the American pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn the Koran. “Pastor Terry Jones is directly responsible for the murder of some of our people,” Canon White says. “They have no idea how terrible it was. Throughout the time he threatened to burn the holy Koran, they were warning us that our people would be attacked. Four of my guards were killed throughout that time. He can try and say from the safety of Florida he was trying to make an important point. But it was an important point that killed our people.”

Canon White was himself a supporter of the American-led invasion of Iraq, but after all the killing, the mutilations, the kidnappings and the mass exodus of Iraq’s Christians – does he still think it was worth it?

It’s the first time he seems unsure of himself. “I had one day in the whole of my life when I thought to myself, why did we do this,” he says. “But I remember what it was like in Iraq before the war, the fear people lived under.” Yet he adds: “But at least you could walk down the street.”

I press again, was it really worth it, so much violence, so many deaths?

“I had seen the terror of the Saddam regime and I knew there was absolutely nothing the Iraqis could do to remove that terror,” he replies. “It’s been hell. So many people killed. I still say the regime had to be removed but we should have done things differently afterwards.”

Regrets are a luxury Canon White cannot afford. He has a flock in Iraq to attend to. While a semblance of peace has returned for Baghdad’s Christians thanks to the joint fatwa, Canon White knows it is temporary. “From my years and years in Palestine, Israel and Baghdad I know that the majority of people can live together,” he says. “But you only need a few fanatics and it all falls to pieces.”

Christianity under fire

IRAQ In the past 20 years, the flight of Christians has reduced the community’s population from 1.4 million to 300,000.

EGYPT On New Year’s Day, 21 Copts were killed in a bomb in Alexandria.

PAKISTAN Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s only Christian cabinet member, was assassinated last week.

NORTH KOREA Christianity is vehemently prosecuted in North Korea, where any expression of religion in the totalitarian state is viewed as open insurrection against the Communist regime.

NIGERIA Sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria has broken out with horrendous violence over the past two years in and around the city of Jos.

Originally published on The Islam Awareness Blog.

The Vicar of Baghdad
Copenhagen fatwa

Dinner with Canon Andrew White

November 5, 2010
Canon Andrew White relaxing before dinner

Canon Andrew White relaxing before dinner

books by Canon Andrew White

books by Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White signing Suffer the Children

Canon Andrew White signing Suffer the Children

Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words. — St. Francis of Assisi

There is no place in the world that has the profile of the Middle East – constantly in the news and constantly the scene of war. Yet amidst the tragedy of the region there are few places that have such wonderful people. I love the people of this region and so do we as an organisation. This includes all peoples of the region: Muslims, Christians and Jews. In the midst of these conflict situations we seek political, diplomatic and religious solutions. — Canon Andrew White

I had the honour and privilege of meeting Canon Andrew White (aka Vicar of Baghdad) Vicar of St George’s Church, Baghdad, Anglican Chaplin to Iraq and President of FRRME during a recent visit to the UK.

As I was early I attended an AGM of Evangelicals who were hosting the dinner I was to attend later at which Canon Andrew White was the invited guest speaker. It was the weirdest AGM I had ever attended and lasted less than 30 minutes. Nothing was questioned, nothing was discussed. The accounts were presented (and I assumed approved) in less than five minutes. Officers were elected on a nod (I assumed no one else wished to stand). We were told that the Archbishop of Canterbury had said something to which they had made an objection. We did not learn what the Archbishop had said or why there was an objection. No one asked. I asked later and no one seemed to know. The Agenda lacked Any Other Business should anyone wish to raise anything.

Very appropriate it was held in the Lewis Carroll room!

Whilst waiting for dinner to be ready, I had a chat with Canon Andrew White.

Dinner was excellent and I must go back to find out how they cooked their excellent pork chops which I had as the main course.

– Cream of Tomato Soup
– Braised Pork Chop in a cider and tarragon sauce
– Raspberry Pavlova
– Coffee

The meeting, to their credit, was hosted by Evangelicals.

Why is that no one likes Evangelicals? People I spoke to went out of their way to emphasises to me that they were not Evangelical, they were there to hear Canon Andrew White speak.

To answer my own question, could it be their lack of grace, their lack of spirituality, their misplaced dogma? Certainly that was the view of people I spoke to and I see no reason to differ.

I spoke to the one and only Evangelical I could find not counting the handful who were at their AGM. It was ensuring the word was correct, I was told. Whose word, from where has it originated, who determined what is deemed ‘correct’ was my response. It is sad they seem to lack any understanding of the origins or history of early Christianity. If they were Muslims they would be called fundamentalists. Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins ought to be mandatory reading, as did What’s So Amazing About Grace and The Jesus I never Knew both by Philip Yancey. We had an interesting discussion of these books at the table I was sitting. To this list I would also add Reconciliation by Benazir Bhutto, the book she was working on when she was killed by Pakistani extremists.

The previous week I had attended a fascinating talk by Professor Adel Sharif on The Role of Science and Faith in the Development of Civilisations hosted by the Guildford and Godalming Interfaith Forum at Saint Nicolas Church in Guildford. His basic premise was that faith played a pre-eminent role in the development of civilisation and that although Man had evolved in the scientific realm he had failed to do so in the religious-spiritual dimension.

I am always reminded of a scene in The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho where Jesus looks in a church and feels he would not be welcome there.

One of the reasons, though by no means the only reason, Christians have problems in Iraq, is due to meddling by American Evangelists.

Christianity in Iraq dates right back to the time of Jesus. Doubting Thomas visited Iraq. The roots go back still further. Abraham was in Iraq. Job was in Iraq. Iraqi Christians are very proud of their heritage.

St George’s is an Anglican church. It was founded in 1864 as a church for the British. It was known under Saddam Hussein as the English church and for that reason it was periodically closed down.

Few Brits now stray out of the Green Zone, it is not safe, St George’s has become the church for Iraqis. At first only a handful, but now a congregation of 4,000.

The people need food and health care. St George’s has its own clinic which serves all Iraqis regardless of faith. An Abrahamic dental practice, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. The standard of heath care provided by the clinic is good.

The people are petrified. Those who can flee the country do so. Only the poor and those who are determined to stay do so. Within the last two months, forty families from his church have fled. Canon Andrew White has promised his people he will not leave.

Although the people are frighted, risk being killed when they do so, attendance at church is regular. The church provides a haven of tranquillity in a war-ravaged country.

The recent carnage at a Catholic Church was a sister church to St George’s. When Canon Andrew White saw pictures of the carnage, saw his friend the priest lying in a pool of blood, he wanted to fly straight back. He spoke of the pain he felt. His people said no, you must stay and go to your dinner, talk to the people in Guildford, then come back. [see Canon White responds to the Baghdad Hostage Crisis]

They were right. By speaking, people maybe learnt a little of Iraq. They need to spread that knowledge to others.

Iraq is a British creation, lines on a map. If a country is occupied, then the occupiers have a duty to stay to resolve the problems they have created. Under President Obama, the situation on the street has got much worse. Canon Andrew White is guarded day and night by over 30 security personnel, but his people are not.

Canon Andrew White is a negotiator. He will talk to anyone who is willing to talk. The one group who will not talk to him is Al Qaeda. He is one of their targets.

The work FRRME do in Iraq is entirely dependent on external support.

Religion is a Big Issue in the Middle East. If we fail to understand this, then we fail to understand the Middle East. When religions go wrong they go very wrong and that is the situation we are now seeing in Iraq.

Asked at the end was there one prayer he would like people to say he did not hesitate with his answer: Please pray for security for myself and my people.

Copies of his four most recent books were on sale, profits to his mission in Iraq.

Iraq: Searching for Hope (2005)
– By The Rivers of Babylon (2008)
The Vicar of Baghdad (2009)
Suffer the Children (2010)

Canon Andrew White is not only the Vicar of St George’s, he is also a skilled negotiator, accepted and respected by all sides, Very quickly flipping through his books I can see why. He is a man of faith. I saw this a few years ago when I met Peggy Gish. A devout Christian but also a woman of steely determination. She too when in Iraq was accepted by all sides.

The tragedy that is Iraq would not be if it were not for war criminals Blair and Bush. Where, asked an Iraqi colleague of Andrew White, were the weapons of mass destruction? As many now realise, but many of us knew at the time, we went to war with Iraq on a pack of lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction. We went to war to control Iraqi oil. We have destroyed Iraq, destabilised the Middle East, created a problem of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The fate of Iraqi Christians, most of who can have now fled the country, is the price they have had to pay.

It was Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN, speaking of the estimated one million children who had died as a result of sanctions on Iraq: it was a price worth paying.

Canon Andrew White was flying back the next day. I shook his hand and wished him a safe journey. We all pray that God keeps his tireless servant safe.

Professor Adel Sharif is of the view that it is faith that enables men to do great works. It is faith that inspires his innovations. I see faith when I read the works of Paulo Coelho. I saw faith when Canon Andrew White talked of the love of his people. It his faith that keeps his people going in war-torn Iraq. It his faith that helps him strive for peace. [see The Role of Science and Faith in the Development of Civilisations]

During dinner I had a chat with a clerical lady re the so-called Peace Oil on sale in St Mary’s Church in Guildford and the misleading information that seemed designed to deliberately mislead the public. We agreed it was scandal that it was on sale and that the deathly silence from St Mary’s would appear to condone its sale on church premises. There is fairtrade Palestinian oil on sale in Guildford, so why was St Mary’s allowing the sale of Israeli olive oil? If you want to make a dfference in occupied Palestine buy fair trade Zaytoun Palestinian olive oil. If you want to help peace and reconcilliation in the Middle East then please make a donation to FRRME of which Canon Andrew White is president. [see Peace Oil or taking the piss?]

Footnote: The following week I had the pleasure of meeting the chef at YMCA Guildford to compliment him in person. He kindly gave the recipe for the Pork Chop in Cider and Tarragon Sauce. Please scale accordingly, unless of course you are cooking for a banquet.

Up coming events

Faiths in Harmony Guildford and Godalming Inter-Faith Forum at St Nicolas Church in Guildford. 3pm, Sunday 14 November 2010.

Israeli Apartheid: Hosted by West Surrey Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Ben White, author of Israeli Apartheid and campaign co-ordinator of A Just Peace for Palestine, will talk of the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. 7-30pm Thursday 18 November 2010, St Nicolas Parish Centre, Guildford.

Woking Quakers as part of Interfaith Week are putting on a show from the Edinburgh Fringe On Human Folly by the Plain Quakers theatre company. Friends Meeting House, 41 Park Road Woking. 2pm Sunday 21 November 2010.

Also see

FRRME’s videos on Vimeo

Vicar: Iraqi Christians are ‘petrified’

Church attack: ‘Worse than a horror film’

Iraq TV station taken off air after deadly church raid

Baghdad church hostage drama ends in bloodbath

Holy Land Christians pray for victims of Iraq church attack

Iraqi Christians’ long history

The Role of Science and Faith in the Development of Civilisations

The plight of Iraqi Christians

End of Christianity in the Middle East?

Muslims converting to Christianity

Eyewitness Iraq

Occupation and Resistance in Iraq