Canon Andrew White, vicar of St George’s church, is not your average pastor. Then again St George’s—which stands protected by 35 guards, blast walls and razor wire—is not your average church. Positioned just outside the Green Zone in Baghdad, complete with an onsite clinic, St George’s is the last remaining Anglican Church in Iraq. It has so far survived five bomb attacks. White, dubbed “the vicar of Baghdad,” and often pictured in a bulletproof vest, is escorted by a convoy of armed soldiers to his services, which include 550 families among loyal parishioners. “In spite of the bombs and violence, they are the happiest people I have ever met. It is humbling to serve them as their Abuna (Priest).” He tells The Majalla.
"I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq," Said Barack Obama recently. “What's clear” he added, “is that we have now achieved an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive and that has enormous potential." With America’s withdrawal from Iraq now complete, Obama’s last statement instigates little confidence. Sectarian and religious violence has persisted in the country—increasingly challenging Iraq’s hopes for unity and future stability.
“Whenever my dad goes out, my mum, my brother and me, we never know if he is going to come home or whether he will get killed. That makes you tired.” says Lina, an 18 year old Iraqi and Canon White’s personal assistant.
[inset_left]People have said that the Arab Spring may be a Christian Winter for the indigenous Christians in much of the Middle East[/inset_left]White, who lives and works in the heart of this issue, explains “There are still many, many bombs. There are many attacks. Most of them are not even reported. We have noticed that, in the last year or so, there have been slightly fewer attacks, but each individual attack is more sophisticated and more deadly.”
“This suggests that those doing the bombing are more organized. It also suggests that there are fewer examples of small-scale, tit-for-tat sectarian reprisals.”
Originally from the UK, Canon White is active as both a priest and peace-broker. Having been resident vicar at St George’s since 2005 he previously served as Director of International Ministry at the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in England, and is currently the president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME).
Working under his conviction that peace cannot be achieved in the Middle East without tackling the underlying religious elements of its society, White holds regular reconciliation conferences with the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq (HCRLI). “In the words of William Temple, ‘When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong,’ and religion has gone very wrong and it has been the source of so much violence.” He recently told Christian Today.
But, it is White’s astounding, seemingly unshakeable, self-confidence has earned him an unusual collection of friends—including senior and influential religious and political leaders, representing the Sunni, Shi’a, Yazidee, Shabach, Mandean, Turkmen, Christian and Jewish communities—and allowed him to approach even militant extremists with open dialogue.
Subsequently, White has become a prominent figure in the Middle East peace process—a subject of mixed opinions. Reports that some involved were growing frustrated by his “meddling” in hostage negotiations and accusations cited in the Guardian in December 2010 that he took false credit for securing the release of the British hostage Peter Moore, sit alongside assertions that he was integral to assisting other hostage negotiations, and that his motivation is always “well meaning.” White also suffers from multiple sclerosis, though he responds firmly to critics who have questioned his ability to run his parish while coping with the disease.
“The Church of England said that having MS meant that I was too sick to look after a church in England because it is a degenerative disease and they were worried about my prognosis.”
“I have a good team of people working with me. Together, we feed 4,000 people every week. We provide medical care to over 2,000 every month. People can judge for themselves whether I am being held back by having MS.”
White currently undergoes stem cell treatment at the church’s clinic, where over 2,000 Iraqi patients also receive medical care every month. The clinic employs Sunni, Shia, Jewish and Christian medical staff, who, he emphasizes, “work side by side to deliver high quality care to their patients, regardless of sectarian affiliation, modeling best practice in sectarian integration at a grassroots level.”
The clinic has just completed work on an extension to cope with high demand for its services which are all provided for free “both to ensure that even the poorest residents have access to the best facilities available, and also to prevent even the slightest hint of corruption.” White says.
“A little over two years ago, a bomb exploded close to the clinic. The motive for the attack was religious sectarian, yet the St George’s medical team, representing different sectarian groups, ignored the risk of secondary explosions and rushed out as one to treat the injured, saving many lives. Their united front sent a powerful and lasting message to a fractured, violent society. They bridged the divide that the bombers were seeking to widen.” He adds.
Commenting on the on-going issue of security for St George’s and the clinic after the US withdrawal White says, “Iraq is a very dangerous place to work. 58 people were massacred in a Syrian Catholic church last year. Having US soldiers up the road in Camp Victory didn’t help them. People could attack us at any time, whether or not the Americans are here.”
“The only reason things might get worse when the Americans have gone is if some group decides to make a political statement. But there are already groups causing violence to make political statements, including the statement that the Americans must leave now.”
In the years since 1998 that White has been coming to Iraq he has come to know the most senior and influential religious and political leaders. “It is these relationships that enable me to bring together the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq (HCRLI).” He says.
The HCRLI comprises religious leaders with a sizeable following in Iraq, political influence due to links with the major political parties, a significant media following and links with those engaged in militia activity. From June 2007 to February 2009, seven Full Meetings of the HCRLI were delivered.
“One of these meetings” White says “in Beirut in August 2008, produced the first ever joint Sunni-Shi’a Fatwa in Iraqi history, condemning violence and terrorism, recognizing the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and asserting the importance of an Iraqi state governed in accordance with the Rule of Law.”
This Fatwa was read repeatedly at 80 percent Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a mosques, and through the broadcasts of Dubai based HCLRI Member, Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Al-Kubaisi, to his regional audience of an estimated 50 million across the Middle East.
According to White “This period of activity directly corresponded with a decrease in terrorist and insurgent violence and the emergence of the Awakening Movement, which we also supported by reaching out to Sunni religious leaders.”
“Clearly, work was also undertaken by many different agencies during the same time period” White quickly adds “but our work had a significant effect in creating the environment that made these changes possible. The members of the HCRLI would not have had the opportunity to meet, to form relationships and to compare ideas were it not for this program.”
White also admits that “the gains made are fragile.” And, after a period of inactivity from February 2009 to January 2011 there was an increase in both sectarian attacks and Al-Qaeda inspired violence. The last three months of 2010 saw a marked increase in violence against the indigenous Christian community. “These included written threats that families must ‘Leave Iraq or die’. In the worst incident, fifty eight people were killed in the attack on the Syrian Catholic Church on 31 October 2010.” White says.
In January 2011, a Full Meeting of the HCRLI was held in Copenhagen. “The outcome to that meeting was a joint declaration condemning violence against religious minorities and calling on the government of Iraq to criminalize incitement to sectarian violence. In the months that followed this meeting, violence against the Christian minority dropped close to nil.”
It has been said that changing Middle Eastern dynamics post the Arab Spring are responsible for unearthing buried religious and sectarian rifts in the region.
“People have said that the Arab Spring may be a Christian Winter for the indigenous Christians in much of the Middle East. There is a lot of truth in that.” says White.
“The increased persecution of Christians and other minority groups is very damaging, not only for those communities but also for the countries that they are fleeing. Iraq, for example, is feeling the loss its Christian population very acutely.”
A complicated character, White is perhaps best sumarised by one online commentator: “He comes across as hugely committed to his calling; fearless about both the immediate risks to his life and about his deteriorating health and completely free from doubt about his own moral judgment—certainly an extraordinary man.” Another simply put it: “I don't quite know what to make of him. Either way the work he does speaks for itself.”
And how does White feel his work is appreciated by the Iraqi community?
“You should ask them.” He says.