Amid Baghdad’s daily carnage, 2014 Wilberforce Award winner, Andrew White, models reconciliation to Muslims, Christians, and Jews…. it’s challenging for us to ask how White’s witness connects to ours in an increasingly divided post-Christian Aotearoa ~
Let’s be honest, Iraq is a turn off. When was the last time you sat down to read a serious news item, let along an article, about Iraq? Like Syria and Southern Sudan or any number of places, it’s just too hard.
Yet the only thing between Iraq, Andrew White and us is geography (would we be indifferent to what is going on there if it were happening in Australia or the South pacific?) It’s easy to see Iraq as an extreme context, but I think it’s challenging for us to ask how White’s witness connects to ours in an increasingly divided post-Christian Aotearoa ~ New Zealand?
In Christ, David…
Iraq is worse than ever. So says Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, where he pastors the only Anglican church in Iraq. Since March, 2,100 people have died in sectarian violence. With 260,000 Christians left in the country, where 1.5 million Christians used to live, White works for reconciliation between religious and political factions in one of the world’s most volatile areas.
As Beeson Divinity School’s Timothy George puts it in First Things,
“If Jesus came back to the Middle East today, I think he would look a lot like the Reverend Canon Dr. Andrew White.”
That’s one reason why White is the newest recipient of the William Wilberforce Award, presented by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. The organization recognized White with the honour Saturday, May 3, in Virginia for his work and influence in the Middle East. It’s also one reason he is called a “prophet” by other supporters in the United States.
White heads the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq, where he brings together Sunni and Shia Islamic leaders. He is also the president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. White recently hosted an historic meeting between Israelis, Palestinians, and Iraqis in Cyprus, where he described the attendees as “coming as enemies and leaving as friends.” White’s most recent book is Older Younger Brother: The Tragic Treatment by Christians of the Jews. Kate Tracy, Christianity Today editorial resident, and Timothy C. Morgan, Christianity Today senior editor for global journalism, interviewed White for (6th May 2014), several days before he received the award.
Growing up in the UK, did you want to model your life after William Wilberforce?
When I was a student, I lived in Clapham, where Wilberforce lived, and became aware of him. Then, I was ordained and my first post was in Clapham. Every day, I used to pass the house where William Wilberforce lived, and I prayed, “Lord, one day, may I be able to be just a little bit like Wilberforce?” But I never dreamt that I would get an award named after Wilberforce.
If Wilberforce was living today, would he be fighting in the British parliament or would he be on the front-line like you?
Fighting in the British Parliament is front-line.
I’m very keen on politicians who take their faith seriously and bring about actual change. When I was in Clapham, I was also elected to the council.
I was the only man in the country who was both an elected politician for the Conservative Party and clergy.
Are Iraq and Baghdad better or worse off since the 2003 invasion?
The situation is probably the worst it has ever been. There’s a severe, serious escalation in the violence. There’s extreme corruption in the government. We don’t think anything will really change. Every day in Baghdad, we’re having people killed in terrorist bombings.
The church is now surrounded by bomb barricades and you have to go through four checkpoints to get to it. It’s almost like being in our own little green zone. It’s frequented by so many people because it has a school there. It has a free clinic and patients are treated without charge for medicines and treatment. All tests are free and 95 percent of our patients are Muslims.
Is there no functional Christian community left in Iraq?
There used to be 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Now there are 260,000. Do you know where the most Iraqi Christians are today in the world? Chicago. There are more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than any other place in the world.
Do the Iraqi Christians gain any support from any sector of Iraqi society or are they on their own?
Christians gain support like everybody else gains support, but not a lot, nothing special. It’s interesting so many of the Iraqi Muslims say the only people who do anything for them are the Christians through our services and the church office.
Why have so many Iraqi Christians moved north to Iraqi Kurdistan?
It’s purely security. The North—Kurdistan—is in essence a different country. Evangelicals go there and say they are missionaries to Iraq, but they are not; they are in Kurdistan. Kurds have their own flag, their own government, their own president and their own language, so it’s barely Iraq.
Is there any evidence that Iraq’s political leaders value religious freedom and Christians?
The government really does do its part to respect the Christian community. I’ve got no problems with them at all. Other countries around could learn a lot from the Iraqi government.
Why are you working in Iraq with Jews?
There are six Iraqi Jews in the whole country and I’m their biggest supporter. I look after them. On Friday night, I’m the rabbi and then I go back to being the pastor. Friday night, I make Kiddush with the Jewish community, then I teach them on the Torah reading for the week. [Note: White studied Judaism at Hebrew University in Israel.]
For Muslims, I do reconciliation work between the different tribes and between Shia and Sunni, but recently we had a meeting between Israeli and Iraqi religious leaders—it’s never happened in history.
Where do you expect this interfaith reconciliation to lead?
We don’t just want to see peace in Iraq. We want to see what we can do to bring about greater peace in the Middle East. Some of my wonderful Christian Facebook friends said, “You must be the antichrist. You’re trying to bring about world peace.”
In these meetings, how do you address the generational anger and hatred?
The Iraqi religious leaders said, “We arrived here, hating Israel and hating the Jews. We never wanted to be here. We only came because you are our friend.”
The rabbis said, “In these three days, we can sum up this meeting with three words: “Fear is cancer.” The ayatollah said, “We arrived here hating the Jews. Now we love them.” They had seen each other and enemies had become friends. So it worked.
The most important thing is that these people saw each other and they had never seen each other really before. I offer this quote, “Who is my enemy? It is the person whose story I have not heard.” They met and heard each other’s story and suddenly they that were enemies became friends.
Do you have second thoughts about the 2003 invasion of Iraq?
I may have supported the need for the invasion. What happened after was totally wrong and you never go into a country, bring about change and then leave it in total utter mess and that’s what America did. They left us in tragedy and violence and in a desperate state and we are now worse than when Saddam was there. We have thousands of dictators.
Seriously, I am not allowed to walk down the street, never.
Because somebody’s going to put a bullet in the back of your head?
Yes. All my team, none of us can walk down the street in Baghdad.
Most people couldn’t deal with that level of anxiety for more than maybe three minutes and so now you’ve been in Baghdad for 15 years? One cannot imagine what your therapy bills are. Are you on anti-depressants?
Lots of medication, but only for my MS. This is what I love. When I go round doing my parish visiting, I have hoards of soldiers and police vehicles with guns.
Has anybody ever told you that you are more than a little crazy?
Every day—the thing is that unless you are called you can’t do this work. There’s no way that a normal person could function this way. It doesn’t matter where you are if you are in God’s will. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be shot or killed. I might be, but I’m where I’m supposed to be.
What do you say to your wife and sons?
My wife says she has never once worried about me. She has got a gift of God as well. The only time the boys ever worried was when the police came and surrounded our house in England because they were scared that the bad guys might get me even there.
Christians doing ministry in conflict zones sense the Holy Spirit and angels around about them. They see things from the heavenly realm. This must have happened to you many times perhaps?
Every day, all day, I mean incredible things; angels, resurrections, and healings. Nobody would probably believe it if we told what our daily life was like. It is so wonderful.
There are countless Iraqi Christians who fled their homeland. Is there any hope for them to come back?
No chance at all. It will never happen. It’s going to become more dangerous for them as Christians and they are settling into where they are now. What’s so terrible is that more people have come to America than anywhere else and they can’t get jobs. They are faced with serious poverty.
What’s the number one thing that Western Christians should be doing? Yes, they will donate, pray, and call their representatives But what else?
I want them to look after the Iraqi Christians here, in Chicago, in Detroit, in San Diego. That’s what they need to do. In Iraq, we can look after ourselves.
We are having to invest money in the US for Iraqi Christians. We need all the money we can get for there, but I’m having to spend it here for Iraqi Christian refugees. This is where we need help.
If you ask me, “what can Christians here do to help this tragedy in Iraq”, l would say, “look after the Christians who escaped”.
The links above to both First Things and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East are well worth spending time on – heart rending. We cannot stand by and not do something about what is going on in that region – a region in whose conflicts we are all complicit. There’s a large-ish Iraqi community in Wellington. Maybe building links there would be a good place to start. There’s lots more to do beyond that. Let’s think this through together at our next Covenanters retreat.
An astonishing witness in a hard-to-imagine situation. It makes you think about what might be possible in our faith community and in our communal Christian endeavours here in Wellington New Zealand with that kind of commitment and trust in God.