It’s the End for Iraqi Christians
|Canon Andrew White says British Christians must wake up to the horrors facing fellow believers in the Middle East (Jeremy Young)|
Canon Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, has been ordered home against his wishes with a £36m Isis bounty on his head. He is terrified for the flock he has left behind
Andrew was five years old when he encountered Isis. He was the son of a founding member of the Anglican Church in Baghdad and named after the vicar of that church, Canon Andrew White. When Isis soldiers attacked the Christian town of Qaraqosh in August they cut the boy in half.
White has the optimism of the truly religious but he found this news devastating.“You can’t stop yourself despairing. You can only despair in that situation.”
In parts of the Middle East, Christianity is in danger of extinction. In 1991 there were 1.5m Christians in Iraq. Today there may be as few as 300,000. In Syria and Egypt, in places where there have been churches for almost two millennia, Christians are being persecuted and killed and their places of worship destroyed.
A report by the Pew Research Centre think tank in Washington found Christianity to be the world’s most oppressed religious group. What remains of the Iraqi Christian community has now lost one of its leaders. White, known as “the Vicar of Baghdad”, was recalled last month from St George’s Church by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, because of the danger posed by the terrorist group Isis.
Could the conflict spell the end of centuries of Christian life in Iraq? “If you’d asked me four months ago I would have said no,” says White. “But in the past four months I say yes. What is a Christian life there now? The Bishop of Mosul said recently that for the first time in 2,000 years there was no church in Nineveh [an ancient city that is now part of Mosul]. That’s the reality.”
Has the West done enough to prevent the destruction of an ancient civilisation, the cradle of its own faith? No. “They haven’t really, have they? They haven’t taken seriously the destruction of the community. I’ve always said, ‘These are our people. We are Christians. And so are they.’”
White compares the current crisis to the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948, which all but ended Jewish life across much of the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left their ancient communities, where they were no longer welcome because of the hatred directed towards the Jewish state.
In Baghdad just six Jews remain; until he left, White was acting as their rabbi. Now the rise of Islamist extremism threatens a similar fate for Christianity in the region. “The rise of Isis has been just terrible. We are their biggest target. Us and the Yazidis. Christians can’t live safely in any area of Iraq. They don’t believe they have any future there.”
I meet White in a country pub in Liphook, near his home in Hampshire. The contrast between the prosperous pensioners eating lunch and the horrors he has come from (Baghdad via Jerusalem) hangs thick in the air.
“People here are not waking up and listening to the reality of what is going on. It is a life-and-death situation, and it is the life and death of our people. Here we are sitting in green country England where many people go to church on Sunday. But it’s a different world. Their biggest question is: ‘Should I have fish or chicken for lunch?’ ”
White is an extraordinary figure who has become an unlikely spokesman for Christianity in Iraq. His background is that of a traditional high Anglican vicar: strict conservative upbringing in Kent, theology at Cambridge and parish work in London and Coventry. But he is drawn towards crisis, propelled by his faith and a seemingly deep-seated desire to help others, to be needed by those in need. “I like dealing with crises,” he says. “I could never have a parish in the leafy countryside of England. I’d go mad.”
With his signature bow tie and his eccentric, patrician manner, White is a throwback to an older type of churchman. He has the zeal of a missionary, paternalistic and passionate about the survival of the faith.
His wife, Caroline, a former solicitor, and his sons Josiah — or Yossi — and Jacob (18 and 16 respectively) live in England, which he says suits them all. “I’ve never known any different. All of them couldn’t cope with me being around much more than I am.”
White began doing reconciliation work in Baghdad in 1998 around the same time he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (an illness that makes his energy difficult to comprehend). In 2003, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, he established an official Anglican presence in Baghdad, something that had been absent since the first Gulf War. His co-director of the International Centre for Reconciliation was there for the opening. It was the man who has just recalled him: Welby.
At first the church was attended by western diplomats and military personnel. But it soon became too dangerous. In their place, Iraqi Christians started attending. It grew into a community centre, with a clinic and school attached. It is funded through White’s Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
White’s courage — some would say foolhardiness — has become legend in post-Saddam Baghdad. In 2004 he was kidnapped and held in a room “with lots of cut-off fingers and toes” until he was able to bribe his way out. He has been involved in countless hostage negotiations (including the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the British captive Ken Bigley). Before he left there was a private army of 35 soldiers protecting him. Isis, he claims, has put a $57m (£36m) price on his head.
“I’ve been shot at and bombed and they’ve tried to blow me up. People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid where you are?’ Never, not one day; I love it. I feel really sad that I’m not there now.”
Churches have also been attacked in Egypt: the monastery of Emir Tadros, near Fayoum, was burnt and looted (Scott Nelson)
He attributes part of his courage to his illness: “If you know you’re going to die anyway you may as well make the most of life now. You’ve got nothing to lose.” But what drives him more than anything is faith. Not the wishy-washy Anglicanism we are used to, but hard, true faith. “It is central to everything I do.”
Leaving Baghdad was a “huge wrench”, a move he wouldn’t have taken unless ordered to by his old friend Welby. Did he agree with the decision?
He hesitates. “It was the right decision. Did I like it? No.” White clearly needed some persuading. In the end it was not the danger to himself that convinced him to go, but the danger he was posing to the people around him.
When White finally left Baghdad, it was only to go to Jerusalem, where he has been working on building relationships between Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders.
“Jerusalem is bad and getting worse, particularly last week [when four rabbis were murdered in a synagogue]. But it’s a holiday camp compared with Iraq.”
So is he planning a return to Baghdad? “I’m watching the situation. We have to see what happens day by day.”
There may not be Christians in Iraq for much longer, but while there are, you sense White will find his way back there.