Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” described his life as a “story of agony and ecstasy” to an audience of about 30 people at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in Washington, D.C., on December 3. White’s compelling presentation, well worth watching online, gave insight into the courageous life of a Christian soldier-peacemaker who has directly confronted power politics while trying to bring Christ’s love to a violent Middle East.
A child of London’s East End, White explained to his listeners from theological, journalistic, and policymaking circles how years in Iraq and the wider Middle East had made him happy in the face of unspeakable horror.
“There are the days when you are crying, saying ‘why Lord and there are days of immense joy,” the nattily-dressed, pink and blue bowtie-wearing White stated. His cane, indicating White’s multiple sclerosis, and his cross made of nails taken from the cathedral in Coventry, England, destroyed by German bombing in World War II, signified life’s harsher realities..
A singing White explained that he is even happier now than when he was resuscitating the dead from cardiac arrest as a London doctor before he joined the clergy. For “I know that I have got the love of Jesus with me all the time,” he said.
White’s joy is no sign of naiveté for a man who earned his moniker the “Vicar of Baghdad” by leading St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad for a decade following the 2003 American-led military regime change. Once serving diplomats and expatriates, White grew a reopened St. George’s into Iraq’s largest church with 6,500 regular congregants, including 600 Muslims. St. George’s housed a school, clinic, and food bank as well.
Amidst Iraq’s sectarian violence and persecution of Christians, particularly after the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq’s (ISIS) emergence, White’s ministry has prompted his description as “Jesus in the Kill Zone.” White once talked his way out of captivity in a room littered with severed fingers and toes while ISIS has killed over 1,000 of his congregants and placed a $157 million bounty on his head, dangers that forced him finally in 2014 to leave St. George’s.
“It doesn’t matter where you are if you are in God’s will,” he stated with Christian courage in a 2014 interview while considering harms to life and limb. His outlook corresponded to his motto “don’t take care, take risks.”
“If Jesus came back to the Middle East today, I think he would look a lot like” White, a “gospel-toting James Bond,” Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School once wrote.
White has previously stated that Iraqi Christians have endured the “worst reality of religious persecution since the Holocaust” and mourned at IRD that “so many of them have been slaughtered.” As he often notes, Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from 1.5 million in 2003 to currently 260,000, with refugees giving Chicago the largest Iraqi Christian population in the world.
The “issue of the children is what hurts most,” he stated to IRD while relating the poignant story he often tells of ISIS beheading four Christian children who refused to convert to Islam. He did not mention during his IRD appearance that ISIS members also cut in half the five-year-old son of a founding member of White’s St. George’s congregation. The boy bore the name Andrew in honor of White, the boy’s baptizer.
Iraqi Christians are following the precedent set by Iraq’s Jews as White indicated at IRD. Iraq’s 250,000 Jews were the Middle East’s largest Jewish community, but six Jews now remain in Baghdad following persecution after Israel’s creation in 1948. He has called himself “their biggest supporter,” often functioning in the past as a rabbi for their Friday services, while St. George’s under White held Seder services and taught from the Torah amidst a fervently anti-Semitic Arab population. As one observer has noted, “White is a lifelong Judaeophile” who studied in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva and Hebrew University in Israel and has called Israel “the most intelligent country. Not in the Middle East – in the world!”
White stressed his love for Muslims as well during his presentation at IRD, making “clear as the world goes on about how evil Islam is” that “my biggest partner is Muslim and we have to work together.” The Iraqi Muslim Sarah Ahmed is a dentist who in her work with White’s Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), among other things, leads one of Baghdad’s best-equipped dental clinics.
“With all my Muslim colleagues, I have one rule, we love each other,” he emphasized, seeing personal care as a better evangelical tool than public evangelization with intellectual apologetics.
White noted during his IRD presentation that ISIS’ victims are actually predominately Muslim, yet they often depend upon Christians for aid. An audience member commented that Islamic doctrine bans adoption, thereby prohibiting this in many Muslim-majority countries. White responded that Christians usually run the good orphanages for Muslims. He has previously stated that “so many of the Iraqi Muslims say the only people who do anything for them are the Christians.”
Reaching across sectarian differences is nothing new for the “Vicar of Baghdad,” who has consistently sought personal redemptive encounters in his reconciliation efforts through the years. “You get to know each person, love them. Perhaps you can persuade them to hear each other’s stories,” he has stated in past descriptions of his person-to-person diplomacy among mutually hostile groups. At IRD he discussed a meeting in 2014 he arranged in Cyprus between Israeli rabbis and Iraqi Muslim clerics.
This strategy has brought White face-to-face with many bloodstained individuals, such as Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein’s infamous sons Qusay and Uday, and Hamas leaders. While discussing Jesus’ command to love enemies in a documentary, White stated that “if you are serious about reconciliation you have to also be working with and engaging with the people who are causing violence.”
“Nice people don’t cause the wars,” he often says.
The desire by “Vicar of Baghdad” to reach out meets it limits with ISIS, a member of which once responded to White’s dinner invitation with a beheading threat. “You can’t negotiate with them. I have never said that about another group of people,” he has said. He strenuously advocates a military response to ISIS, including ground troops.
White is “anything but an idealist. Being all for peace doesn’t mean being unrealistic about the use of force,” one journalist has written.
“I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any,” he has stated in his analysis of Islamic doctrine. ISIS “can justify their position when Allah says you should combat and fight the infidel.”
“All around us we see this increasing tension between Islam and Christianity,” he stated in a 2006 interview. He said the “Huntington theory, the clash of civilizations, certainly needs to be taken seriously.” At IRD, he echoed Pope Francis and saw in recent Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California the “beginning of a Third World War.”
White also opposes an “actually very dangerous” Iran nuclear agreement. (“If Israel says it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” he has stated.)
But he supported the 2003 Iraqi regime change in which “Americans came to the rescue of the Iraqi people.” At IRD he reminisced that the Americans in Iraq formed a “wonderful community, soldiers and civilians, all of us together, and we knew that we were at war together.”
Yet the invasion’s aftermath “was totally wrong and you never go into a country, bring about change and then leave it in total utter mess…we are now worse than when Saddam was there,” White stated in 2014.
White skeptically contemplated prospects for Middle East democracy in 2006 following Hamas’ Palestinian electoral victories. “The sad fact is that as we look at the countries which really work in the Middle East, countries like Jordan and Morocco, we see that they’re actually benevolent dictatorships,” he stated. In Iraq Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani repeatedly “said quite categorically that the people were to vote for religious Shia, and they did in masses.”
Iraq showed that “in the Middle East it is impossible to have religion without politics,” as White stated at IRD, since “religion has power [that] can actually be used constructively or destructively.”
He once recalled emphasizing this to the American envoy to Iraq under occupation, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, now a friend of White’s who sits on the board of FRRME’s American subsidiary. Contrary to his advice, Bremer thought that “he’d take care of providing basics like water and electric first, but he soon realized he couldn’t even do that without taking religious issues into consideration.”
White’s Middle East ministry manifests the complexity of Christian social witness at the intersection of politics and piety. While heeding Jesus’ maxim that “blessed are the peacemakers,” the “wise as serpents” White does not forget the temporal power indicated in Jesus’ command to his followers to buy a sword. No multicultural relativist, White remains firmly grounded within Christianity’s Jewish roots while recognizing Islamic doctrinal dangers. His exemplary model of robust Christian realism in a fallen world deserves prayer and support.