Why Iraq? Anglican Vicar describes How he Started the Work of Reconciliation in Baghdad

Source:  www.assistnews.net

Date:  2012-10-23

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

BAGHDAD, IRAQ (ANS) -- Canon Andrew White, the popular 'Vicar of Baghdad' who serves at St. George's in the Iraqi capital, is currently receiving treatment overseas for his balance problems associated with having MS.

Canon Andrew White,
The Vicar of Baghdad
(Courtesy: FRRME).

He writes that the treatment is "very good, intensive, and involves being put in a steam-filled cabin with electro-magnetic impulses. The treatment has had outstanding success with a huge number of patients so I live in hope, though the treatment does make you feel ill."

Canon White says that he has had more time to write while undergoing treatment.

"At least I do have more time to write and pray here, but I do so miss being in Baghdad or with my family," he said.

In a recent article, 'Why Iraq?' Canon White gives a brief introduction to the nature of his work in Iraq.

It is now 14 years since Canon White first started to work in Iraq.

"Initially, in 1998, I was mainly working on issues of reconciliation between the various religious and political leaders and their various equivalents in the West. In the early days I remember very clearly taking them to see Billy Graham in America and the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. At the very heart of my work in Baghdad is the work of reconciliation," White says.

"For me this work is very much centered on and in the Middle East. It all began though when I was preparing for ordination at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. It began with working on a restoration of a broken relationship between Jews and Christians amongst students at Cambridge. That story is told in depth in the book 'The Vicar of Baghdad', but my real work in reconciliation at an international level began when I was appointed director of the International Centre for Reconciliation in 1998. Here I was heading up one of the foremost centers for reconciliation in the world. The role of Coventry Cathedral in reconciliation is truly exceptional and begun 58 years before I arrived there on the night of the 14th November 1940."

A City Is Destroyed

Canon White recalls how the Second World War was well underway but never to date had a city been completely destroyed.

"On this night the 14th November 1940 things changed. The City of Coventry in the heart of England was totally destroyed. It gave birth to the term 'COVENTRIED' which means to be totally destroyed. Along with Coventry's destruction was the total obliteration of its medieval Cathedral of St Michael. Named after the Archangel and great protector, it was no more. Standing in the midst of the smoldering rubble the next morning the Cathedral's leader at the time, Provost Dick Howard, took a piece of chalk and wrote on the sanctuary wall 'FATHER FORGIVE,'" White says.

Canon White describes how people noticed Howard was writing the words of Our Lord from the cross.

"He did not write the words in full though which are 'Father forgive them, they know not what they do". People asked why these words were missing ? The answer was simple -- it was the first line of what would become Coventry's Litany of Reconciliation. 'All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of G-d.' 'We also need to be forgiven,' said the Provost. In this act, he did not realize what he was doing. He was giving birth to one of the foremost ministries of reconciliation in the world today," White says.

It was just days later that one of the Cathedral staff standing in the ruins of the Cathedral noticed that amongst the Cathedral rubble were the large medieval nails that had held the roof together, White recalled.

"He took three nails and attached together. Thus gave birth to what became known around the world as the Coventry Cross of Nails. Nowadays all over the world you can find places of reconciliation where the Coventry Cross of Nails is also their symbol. As I go into our own church here in Baghdad there on the altar is the Coventry Cross of Nails in a piece of the bombed stonewall of the Cathedral.

"Each time I see the cross I remember that reconciliation is about mending that which is broken. Iraq is broken and here we are working at its restoration."

Canon's Work More Than Reconciliation

Canon White's work in Baghdad is very varied, he said. "Despite Iraq not being in the news much now it is a total and utter war zone. Bomb barricades and every few yards on the roads you are faced with military checkpoints surround us."

Canon White says that apart from being the Anglican Chaplain to Iraq, he is in reality is the vicar of St George's Church in Baghdad.

"Here the Church includes far more than just church. Within our compound we have one of the largest clinics in Iraq. With four doctors, two dental surgeries, a hematology and stem cell units, pharmacy, laboratory and X Ray unit. So this acts as a comprehensive health care center and all treatment is free," he said.

"It is very strange often being called to the clinic to insert intravenous lines when they have failed to canulate their patients. This takes me back to my pre-ordained life when I worked in the field of Anaesthesia. Putting in intravenous lines for me is like riding a bike -- you never forget how to do it. In addition to this we also have a very modern infants' school and a major food relief program to help the many poor of our community, which is both Christians and Muslims."

Canon White says he is involved in a large number of other Church-related things.

"I am chaplain at the US Embassy and do services at the British Embassy. It is though my non-Christian work that is particularly high-profile. It involves working on religious sectarianism. Bringing together those that have traditionally been enemies, such as the Sunni and Shia Islamic leader, though we work with those belonging to many other religious traditions as well. In this capacity, I head up the High Council of Religious leaders in Iraq. The sad fact is that religion is very much tied up with violence. As Archbishop William Temple said in World War II 'when religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong'. We cannot reject the very real role that religion plays in violence," Canon White says.

Violence in Iraq Carried Out by Outsiders

The vast majority of violence in Iraq is carried out by people who carry out their terrorism to justify their religious stance, he said.

"If you examine the position of each group it is clear, they commit the violence because they have a profound sense of loss. The major leader of the Sunnis in Iraq, who is a great man of peace who I work with continually, is Sheikh Khalid. He has often said to me that 80 percent of the violence is carried out by people of his own tradition.

"It cannot be denied that the Sunni community has lost the most since the war in 2003. Saddam was a Sunni and since the war it cannot be denied that this group of people have lost a huge amount of money in de-Bathification, property, industry, employment, but ultimately they have lost power! Once under Saddam they were the minority political leaders of the nation, now it is the majority Shia who rule. They are therefore against the Shia majority and against any who are seen as being part of the warring group who led the war in 2003. This is the Americans, British and any other land, which is seen as part of the original coalition," White explains.

White says the leaders of this terrorist movement are not even from Iraq -- they are mainly from the surrounding Arab Nations and here are simply known as AQI (Al Qaeda Iraq).

"What they have done is work at getting Sunni Iraqis to support them and carry out much of the work on the ground. What is clear here is that you cannot buy people, you can only hire them. A typical example of this is how AQI got the support of many of the Sunnis living in the predominantly Sunni district of Al Anbar. They were paid by AQI, and they provided them the support to carry out the worst of the suicide bombings. Then another group came along who needed them. This group was none other than the US Army who was offering more payment to join a group called the Sons of Iraq, and their job was to work for peace. It was whilst this group was functioning after 2007 that we saw a major fall in violence from its extreme from 2005 to the beginning of 2007. Since the US Army withdrawal in 2011 we have once again seen a steady increase in violence."

Of particular sadness was the formation of the groups such as "the Birds of Paradise" around the Northern town of Kirkuk, White said. "This was a group of children aged between 9 and 13. These young children were trained to be suicide bombers, because as children they were less likely to have to undergo intense security checks that would expose their evil intent. Have you heard that in recent weeks a new group has been established? This time the group is based in Hilla, the modern town of Babylon. The group called the 'Fourth Brigade' is also made up of children, but this time they are even younger, aged from 7-13. Once again, this group appears to be the work of AQI."

White explained: "The main work of this group has not even begun yet, but is believed to begin very soon after the imminent festival of Eid. Of particular concern this time is that those concerned are supposedly targeting Christians. Iraqi Christians are seen as being linked to the West."

Christians Have A Long History In Iraq 

"The fact is that there have been Christians in Iraq for more years than most other places in the world. It is an acknowledged fact that Monotheistic religion begun with the arrival of Jonah in Nineveh, followed by the work of the prophet Nahum. The people of this city were the evil Assyrians; they started to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Seven hundred years later somebody else turned up on the way to India. Here he is much revered and simply known as Mar Thoma. He asked the people of Nineveh if they knew the Messiah had come. They said that they did not, he told them, and they believed. This man to us in the West is known as Doubting Thomas. To this very day 2700 years after Jonah, most of the Christians in Iraq and my entire congregation are from the city of Nineveh. To this day they are known simply as the Assyrians, the bad people who became good."

White continued by saying that it was on the last day of October 2010 that everything changed for Christians in Iraq. AQI gunmen broke into the Syrian Catholic Church during a service and killed 59 people. What followed was over 2 months of massacring, killing and torturing of Christians, he said.

"For me, what begun was intense engagement with the various religious leaders of Iraq. Engagement with the various key religious figures in Iraq. Of paramount importance was the engagement with the Sunni's. Two weeks after the tragedy, Sheik Khalid came and spoke in my church. He expressed his sadness and sorrow about what had happened and assured the people that they were a vital part of Iraq. Intensive negotiations continued to urgently get a meeting together to enable us to move forward condemning all violence towards minorities. It was the Danish Ambassador Gert Meinecle and his government that came to the rescue. By early January, we took together the various religious leaders to Copenhagen. We were joined by the Sunni and Shia Islamic leaders as well as those from three other minorities the Christians, Yazidees and Mandians."

White says that, "Day and night we worked on the Fatwa (Islamic Religious Injunction) and Declaration not to permit violence against minorities. All night the Islamic leaders were on the phone making known to their contacts that there was a historic joint Sunni and Shia Fatwa forbidding the killing of minorities. The effect was immediate and very significant attacks against Christian are stopped immediately."

Sadly a month latter an attack killing a Christian family happened in Baghdad, White said. "This is what we were informed by the terrorists would indeed happen after a month if we did not continue working with the Islamic leaders. The whole way this has worked has just demonstrated how important this work is. The comments have been continuous by the Christians saying how different the situation is now. The vast majority did not know about the one attack in Jihad area of Baghdad where very few Christians live. Despite the Islamic Fatwa, many Christians fled Iraq after these attacks."

Meeting in Copenhagen Helped Bring Reconciliation

White said the Danish meeting was a very quick response to the crisis. "It did work in a way we never thought possible. We have continued having high-level meetings of Religious Leaders of Iraq, which are often out of country. But there have also been the development of grassroots work to take the message around the country at a lower level. This is aimed at the lower level Islamic leaders such as imams of local mosques and is based around different areas in Iraq. Whilst this work has been very successful, there is now a very real concern as to what will happen now with increased violence and the establishment of groups such as the 4th Brigade in Hilla."

Iraq today is in 'a total mess', White said. "Politically, economically, socially and educationally. It is a land facing one of the greatest levels of corruption in the world. The streets and infrastructure are more than falling to pieces yet Iraq has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. The one area of particular concern is the continued large number of Iraqis claiming asylum overseas, particularly amongst Christians. The position amongst all the religious leaders on this is clear -- they are all against any of their people leaving Iraq. Are they at risk? Yes, everybody is, but this nation will never be restored if all the good people leave. However there are real concerns about people with children being made to return when they have spent most of their life out or Iraq. The possibility of those children being able to resettle here is very remote."

White concludes: "Iraq continues in a state of war. As a Christian leader in Iraq we do not want our people to leave. Thousands have fled to Kurdistan in the safe North of Iraq. Many more have recently fled to Turkey. The surrounding turmoil in places like Syria has just added to the pain of Iraq. Many from here had sought refuge in Syria, many have now returned and are living in refugee camps at the borders. Yonadam Kanna, the main Christian political leader in Iraq says 'If the Christians all leave this land the root is removed and the tree dies.' Christians are indeed the root of this land!"

Canon White said his Iraqi curate will be in Chicago the second week of November and there is a need for some churches to invite him to speak and somebody to help show him around while visiting the US.

"He is the first ever Iraqi Anglican Episcopalian priest," White said. If you can help, please 'privately message' Canon White through his Facebook page at

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