Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Andrew White: A man of courage under fire

October, 2012

This is the essence of supernatu­ral living - hearing God and living in obedience to Him, even when it doesn't make logical sense. (Andrew White, Faith Under Fire, p. 43) 

On Sunday October 31, 2010, nine Al Qaeda Terrorists stormed into the Syrian Catho­lic Church in Baghdad, where the service had just begun, and killed 58 people while wounding many others. It was the worst massacre of Christians in Iraq for many years.

This attack was part of a pattern of intensive persecution of Iraqi Chris­tians that, ironically, has become worse since the end of Saddam Hus­sein's regime in 2003. The persecu­tion has become so severe that many Christians are fleeing from Iraq. Their numbers in that country have dwindled from more than a million to fewer than 500,000. Many more Christians are considering leaving if they get that opportunity, which makes it all the more difficult for those who remain.

STANDING WITH THE PERSECUTED CHURCH

One person stands out in Iraq be­cause he refuses to leave. He is the Reverend Andrew White, pastor of the only Anglican church in Bagh­dad, St. George's located in the same neighbourhood as the Syrian Catho­lic Church. This church, too, has en­dured bombings and the murder of many of its members. The thriving dental and medical clinic in their facilities was destroyed, though it was restored in record time.

The Reverend White, also called the and difficulties of living in Iraq. He has been beaten, jailed (one time in a room strewn with bloody fingers and toes), had a fatwa on his head, and can only venture into the streets sur­rounded by bodyguards and wear­ing a bulletproof vest.

He has had to leave Iraq to ensure his safety, but he always returns, be­cause he is convinced that the Lord calls him to stand with the persecut­ed church in Iraq, no matter what the cost. (His wife and two children live in England, while he spends most of his time in Iraq.) 

This amazing story of dedication and courage of this one man who is preaching and living the Gospel of peace to thousands of suffering people is a story that should inspire Christians. It is proof that cynicism and hopelessness do not have the last word. On the contrary, it proves that God can overcome evil and bring joy and hope in situations that seem hopeless. 

Andrew White was born and lived in England where he began his professional life as an anesthetist, but he felt called to become a priest in the Anglican Church and was ordained in 1990. He served as curate in two churches. In his student years he had taken a keen interest in the study of Judaism and Islam, and he became active in the International Council of Chris­tians and Jews. 

In 1998, at age 33, he was appoint­ed as a canon at Coventry Cathedral. There he was Director of interna­tional Ministry, including responsi­bility for directing the international Centre for Reconciliation. This po­sition required extensive travel and meetings with many leading people in the Middle East, especially in Is­rael, as well as in Kenya and Nigeria. He was involved in the attempt to resolve some high-profile kidnap­pings. 

He became convinced that in the conflict between the West and the Islamic world, the Christian message of reconciliation needed to be heard and heeded. In 2005, he moved to Baghdad to become the Anglican chaplain to Iraq.\In 1998, the Reverend White was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which affected his mobility and speech. Despite his limitations, he has managed to follow a schedule that would wear out most healthy people. In 2009, he underwent a newly discovered stem cell treat­ment in a Baghdad hospital that was successful.

RECONCILIATION EFFORTS

The first major assignment the Rev­erend White took on was an attempt to mediate between Israel and its Muslim neighbours. He met with many diplomats and politicians on both sides of this divide and made remarkable progress in bringing people together who had never met, let alone agree on a joint statement of peace. 

In 2000, there were signs of im­provement in the Middle East. Huge numbers of pilgrims visited the Holy Land, including Pope John Paul 11, but later that year, the Oslo Accords were unraveling. President Bill Clinton's attempt to negotiate a "fi­nal status" agreement between Israel and Palestine had failed. Rocket and mortar shells were fired at the out­skirts of Jerusalem. Rioting erupted when Ariel Sharon visited the Tem­ple Mount. The al-Agsa Intifada had begun, and violence was spreading. 

It was at that time when every­thing was falling apart in 2001 that the Reverend White met with Jew­ish, Christian and Muslim leaders to make the preparations for a meeting to explore the possibility of peace in the Holy Land. Archbishop of Can­terbury, George Carey was asked to serve as the moderator and chair­man of the meeting to be held in Al­exandria, Egypt. 

The Reverend White had drafted a declaration as a starting point for the often drawn-out discussions with all the participants, including Yasser Arafat; an adviser of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the oldest and most au­thoritative Muslim university; and the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III. 

A great deal of preparatory work took place behind the scenes to introduce the draft statement and develop some consensus among the participants. This took many months of intensive meetings and deliberations. But finally, on January 20, 2002, the meeting chaired by Dr. George Carey got underway. Still more meetings in small groups took place during that day. 

At the end of a long day, it looked as if this effort had failed. But the next day a breakthrough occurred and the final version of the First Alexandria Declaration of the Reli­gious Leaders of the Holy Land was translated into Arabic, Hebrew and English and signed by all the partici­pants. This document includes the following statement:

"The violence in the Holy Land is an evil which must be opposed by all people of good faith. We seek to live together as neighbours respecting the integrity of each other's historical and religious in­heritance. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred and misrepresenta­tion of the other." 

The second major event in 2002 tells a story totally opposite to the intent of the Alexandria Declaration of peace and goodwill. It concerns the 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that began on April 2, 2002. More than 200 Palestinians, heavily armed gunmen, policemen and civilians, had sought refuge from the Israeli Defense Forc­es, who were searching for wanted terrorists. 

When the Reverend White arrived on the scene he found a situation he described as probably the worst he had ever encountered. The previ­ous October the Israeli Minister of Tourism had been assassinated, and now the IDF were searching for the perpetrators. There was a sense of fear all around. Again, the Reverend White played a major role in the be­hind the scenes deliberations with all the parties especially the Israeli military and political authorities.

This dangerous standoff, with the potential of blowing up into a dead­ly and massive riot, came to an end after nearly six weeks. The Reverend White describes this event as the most dramatic chapter in his book, The Vicar of Baghdad. He explains:

"It tells the story of the 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord, a siege that affected not only the people trapped in the church but all the inhabitants of the city and the neighbouring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour For most OJ that time I was a witness to their suffering, all day and every day. By the end, I was exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually. I remember that I finally went home in tears" (p.43). 

His work in Israel and Palestine also led the Reverend White to take an interest in Iraq. His first trip to that country in 1998 was at the invita­tion of Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. That meeting was followed by many more with other religious and political leaders in the next three years. He writes that he worked unsuccessfully at reconcili­ation, while his work at relief efforts had some success.

IRAQ LIBERATED

Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. Since the Reverend White had established good relations with various leaders, he was able to con­tinue his work in Iraq. He had begun to involve the International Centre of Reconciliation in some humani­tarian projects, including helping to establish a bone marrow centre for Iraqis suffering from leukemia. 

The war in March 2003 ended Saddam Hussein's regime, but the subsequent violence and the inter­religious warfare cost many thou­sands of lives. Although the Rev­erend White believed that the war was justified, he faults the Coalition authorities for not being prepared to manage the aftermath. 

He writes that the Coalition had no real understanding of Iraqi soci­ety and that its Provisional Author­ity was a "well- meaning shambles." There were many experts, but they were experts in setting up systems that work in America, but not in Iraq. Paul Bremer, the new governor of Iraq knew nothing about the Arab world. 

The Reverend White was asked by the Coalition to bring together the influential religious leaders, which resulted in a meeting in February 2004 where the Baghdad Religious Accord, based on the earlier Alexan­dria Declaration, was signed by 39 religious leaders. This Accord stated that "killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of the laws of heaven." It was an historic achieve­ment. Nevertheless, the Reverend White wrote in November 2006: "The carnage just went on and on and on. 

In 2007 General David Petraeus asked the Reverend White to orga­nize a meeting of religious leaders which became the "High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq." This group helped to reduce the level of violence until 2009 when the Bush administration left office and the funding stopped.

REVIVING ST. GEORGE'S ANGLICAN CHURCH 

When the Reverend White first trav­elled to Iraq in 1998, he initiated the work of renovating the neglected building of the St. George's Angli­can Church in Baghdad, which had stood empty since 1984. He started to hold services though at first they were poorly attended. When he re­turned to Iraq again shortly after the war in 2003, he was surprised that the main building of St George's was not damaged. 

At the first service after the libera­tion of Iraq, White preached from Haggai 2:9: "The glory of this present house will be greater than the for­mer house, says the Lord Almighty" "And in this place I will grant peace, declares the Lord Almighty" The congregation at St. George's kept growing. Soon the services became increasingly Iraqi, requiring transla­tion into Arabic. The first lay pastor (Maher) was appointed to look after the church and its congregation in the Reverend White's absence. 

In April 2005, disaster struck. Maher, his wife and 14-year-old son, and his assistant had attended a Christian conference in Jordan. On their return trip they had tele­phoned as they crossed the border into Iraq - and that was the last that was heard from them. The assumption was that they were kidnapped and killed. 

In all of 2005, the Rev­erend White lost 11 of his staff who were killed or disappeared. Life in Iraq was becoming more dan­gerous, and he was ordered to move into the Green Zone, a heavily guarded and barricaded section of Baghdad. By 2007, the congregation had grown to more than a thousand, and there was no space in the Green Zone to accommodate them for the Sunday services. So they began to hold services in their church again though the Reverend White had to be escorted there by five heavily ­armed bodyguards. 

In July 2007, the Reverend White reported that 36 members of his congregation were kidnapped the previous month. Only one was re­turned. In the first five months of 2008 another 89 members were tak­en or killed. In 2010, 93 members of St George's were killed. 

Converts to Christianity are es­pecially threatened. The Reverend White secretly baptized 13 new Christians. Word must have leaked out; within one week 11 of them were dead. Despite these and other heartbreaking losses, the church ser­vices are full and lively. 

GLORY AMIDST SUFFERING

People often ask the Reverend White why he spends so much time in a dangerous place such as Baghdad. He answers that he is there because he is sent, and that's why he is never afraid. He writes:

"The more I have done this type of work, and the more 1 have struggled with the reality of death and destruction, the more I have had to put my trust simply in my Lord and my God.... However dreadful the tragedy, my Lord is there. Amidst the greatest havoc I have wit­nessed in post-war Iraq or in GaZa, or in Bethlehem during the siege, I have still seen his glory..." 

"When life is full of despair, it is only the glory of God that truly sustains. There have been times when everything has gone wrong, when friends and col­leagues have been killed and there has seemed to be no hope. It is at times like this that I ask God to show me his glory. He always does so, though sometimes I do not see it immediately" (The Vicar of Baghdad, pp.170-1).

The story of the Reverend White's fearless and unselfish dedication to the spiritual and physical wellbe­ing of the beleaguered people of St. George's Anglican Church in Bagh­dad is powerful evidence that God is at work in the most unlikely and desperate circumstances. He con­cludes his book with a hymn that he wrote himself and that sums up his experience in Iraq. Here are two verses:

The bullets fly, the rockets thud.
I long, 0 Lord, to see you here,
To see your peace breaking through.
 Oh, reconcile me now to you!

I see your glory shining through.
The darkness fades at your command.
The glory heals the brokenness.
Oh, reconcile me now to you!