The “Vicar of Baghdad” is visiting Israel this week, and he’s brought a little good news, a great deal of bad, and endless reserves of faith.
The Vicar of Baghdad is a larger-than-life figure — a big, exuberant presence with a cane (he suffers from multiple sclerosis), a large silver cross around his neck, and today a deafening bow tie — and he needs to be. He’s lived in the constant shadow of death for eight years in a heavily barricaded compound surrounded by razor wire in the Iraqi capital, prevented by the Iraqi Army from taking so much as a step outside, with bombs exploding all around. He is permanently surrounded by dozens of army guards. When he wants to leave — like he did just now, to come to Israel — he is driven out of the compound in an Iraqi army convoy.
The Vicar of Baghdad reopened the Iraqi capital’s St. George’s Church in 2003, along with Justin Welby, a fellow member of the Anglican clergy with whom he had worked at England’s Coventry Cathedral. Welby is a good ally to have; three weeks ago he was enthroned as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican church. St George’s, which was founded in 1863, was closed down by Saddam Hussein. It now has the largest congregation of any church in Iraq, at 6,500. About 600 of its regulars are Muslims.
The Vicar of Baghdad loves the Jews and Israel. He studied in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem and at the Hebrew University. He and his wife Caroline named their two sons Yossi (Josiah) and Jacob. Now in his late 40s, he did his doctorate at Cambridge on the role of Israel in Christian theology. He also served for a time as the Kashrut officer at Cambridge’s Jewish Society, “though I was too frum for them.”
The Vicar of Baghdad is Reverend Canon Andrew White, and he is one of the most remarkable people you could ever wish to meet.
The “good news” he has brought to Jerusalem this week, he says, is that there is a group of hardline Iranian Shi’ite clerics who seek to talk with Israelis. He doesn’t want to go into too many details, but he says such meetings could be greatly beneficial to the Israeli-Iranian relationship. White is a believer in peacemaking and perseverance and infinite possibilities, but he is anything but naive. He knows full well that “there are people in Iran who want to wipe Israel out and [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is among them. But these are senior religious leaders, and they want to meet with you. I’m coming back to Israel every month now to work on this,” he says. “These leaders come to Iraq very often. They come to me in Baghdad in my church regularly.”
So much for the good news. The bad news Canon White brings from Iraq is that pretty much everything there is “moving in the wrong direction.” The Americans went in to liberate Iraq,” he says, and it was right for the West to oust Saddam Hussein. But America’s inability to recognize the imperative of working with Iraq’s religious leadership doomed its efforts to rebuild the country and foster democracy there. Instead, the US has left an Iraq that is steadily forming an ever-deeper coalition with Iran.
Baghdad today remains “in total turmoil,” he says. “There are bombings every day. You don’t hear much about it because the journalists have run away. They’re not there. It’s too dangerous. They went to Afghanistan.”
He says it’s the Sunni Muslims who are carrying out most of the attacks, and non-Iraqi Sunnis in particular — “especially what was known as Al-Qaeda Iraq, which has now changed its name to the Islamic Liberation Society.” Just this week, he notes, “the Syrian Islamic Liberation Movement joined forces with al-Qaeda Iraq. The Syrian rebels are working together with al-Qaeda, they’re getting weapons together,” he says with horror. “Syria is so dangerous.”
White knows more than a little about curious relationships between Iraq and Syria. One of his former colleagues in Iraq was General Georges Sada, a Christian who defied Saddam in refusing to execute prisoners of war, and later wrote a book called Saddam’s Secrets which discussed how Iraqi chemical weapons were flown out of the country to Syria shortly before the 2003 invasion. “It was Sada, who today lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who arranged to take Saddam’s chemical weapons out of Iraq to Syria,” White recalls. “Iraq never had any nuclear weapons. The chemical weapons were flown to Syria in quite large quantities, several flights. The lieutenant who actually did the transporting, a Christian, became ill. Remember when Iraq gave 100 days notice in 2003 before allowing in weapons inspectors? That’s when the WMD was flown out.”
The vicar politely acknowledges that everybody tells him he’s crazy to be in Baghdad, and that he should leave. He has said in the past that he sees a key goal as trying to mediate and promote dialogue between Shiite and Sunni leaders.
Today he responds simply, observing that along with the church “we also run the biggest clinic in Baghdad” — dentists, doctors, a pharmacy.
“Yes, we get blown up from time to time,” he says quietly — notably a huge blast in the street outside the church in October 2009, that killed 144 people and caused considerable damage to the church premises. “I preach the words that are written on the wall of Coventry Cathedral,” says White. “Two words, ‘Father Forgive.’” (They were carved after the medieval cathedral was bombed by the Nazis on November 14, 1940.)
In a 2009 book, White recalled the first sermon he gave at the reopened St. George’s, in which he quoted Haggai 2:9: “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house… and in this place I will grant peace.” White wrote, “I never dreamed how that promise would be fulfilled in this church, but… today St. George’s is filled with the glory of the Lord, and even though there is violence all around, it is a place of the profoundest peace.”
In our conversation, White says he initially believed the peace he would be working toward in Iraq would be political, but now he knows that it must be religious. To that end, “I lead something called the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq, an inter-religious engagement” with Muslims, Christians and Jews… “though not very many Jews of course.”
He says he and his team “work hard explaining to Iraqis about Israel. Even the Christians, they honestly thought Israel just kills Arabs. I teach them the Torah. I say it’s our Bible as well as a Yehudi Bible. We hold a seder in the church. Yom Kippur is a fast day.
“The first year after Saddam’s fall, I organized a seder in Saddam’s palace. There were 36 people there, Brits and Americans. It was glatt kosher.”
The Iraqi Jewish community, which dates back to Babylonian exile more than 2,500 years ago, today numbers precisely six, White says. Two medical professionals (one of whom works at St. George’s), three elderly women, and one elderly man.
The Christians are faring a little better. A decade ago, there were 1.5 million. Now there are 200,000. There were over 300 churches. Now there are 58.
St. George’s congregation, says White, grew in large part from the many who came first for medical help. “We also give food relief — a bag of groceries for each person after prayers,” he says. The church holds 600, with an overflow room for 300 more, and it needs all the space it can get for weekend services, also holding smaller services on Thursdays and Fridays.
And those 600 Muslims? “Nearly all of them are women,” he says. “It’s important to stress that we don’t try to convert them.” Why do they come? “The women are listened to and given respect. The role of women in Iraq has been diminished.”
Has the West completely mishandled Iraq? “America put in $6 billion dollars to rebuild,” he says. “You can’t see anything that’s been rebuilt apart from the new US Embassy compound, which is a city, two miles wide. They used to have 39,000 people there. It’s down to 10,000 now. They want to reduce it to 5,000 by the end of the year.”
Where did the US go wrong? “Nobody took the religious dimensions seriously.” Paul “Jerry” Bremer, the top US civil administrator after the 2003 invasion, “told me when he got there that he had to sort out water and electricity first and then he’d talk to the religious leaders.” That never happened. And nor was the water or electricity ever sorted out. “Right up to now,” says White, “the government provides only 4 hours of electricity a day.
“Later, the Americans said, ‘We don’t deal with religion. We believe in separation between state and religion.’ I said, ‘You can’t make that separation in this part of the world.’ George W. Bush eventually understood this. He directly supported our work. We had a White House liaison. I had a base in the Pentagon. We had financial support… Immediately the new president [Obama] was elected, that support stopped. Now we have no funding from the US. You know who stepped in? Those people who saved the Jews in World War II: the Danes.”
Can Iraq be salvaged? “We will try,” says White. “The key is the religious leadership. The Americans are out of it. But Canada is coming back. Canada is reopening its embassy in Baghdad. Foreign Minister John Baird came to visit me last week” — en route to Israel. “The Australians are pretty good too.”
Over the years, several of White’s staff have been killed in the Iraqi violence; his lay pastor Majid was kidnapped in 2007, and he raised a $40,000 ransom payment to secure his freedom; White himself briefly left Iraq that same summer amid threats to his life, and he once said he’d been “hijacked, kidnapped, locked up in rooms with bits of finger and toe and things… held at gunpoint, been attacked – the usual thing.”
Unsurprisingly, his family has never been to Baghdad. Still, he did take his oldest son to Kurdistan, White says, “where he was photographed with all my guards. It made a very good profile picture for his Facebook page.”
From Israel, the Vicar of Baghdad will be flying on to England. “It’s about time I saw my wife,” he says.
And then? Back to Baghdad.