Canon Andrew White is in a jovial mood. Apparently this is not uncommon. He’s just been encouraging my office colleague to try on a curly black wig that he has brought along with him for our interview. She obliges, and he erupts in laughter that fills the whole building. “Let’s have some fun,” he says, donning the wig for the photographer, “Christians are so boring, you know”. You certainly couldn’t say that of White – his personality and occupation are about as far from “boring” as it’s possible to be.
Known to many as ‘the vicar of Baghdad’ (the title of his most recent book), White has devoted his life to peacemaking in the Middle East. He is the vicar of St George’s in Baghdad, the only Anglican Church in Iraq and, he says, “the best church in the world”. In the Middle East, where he has established a ministry of reconciliation, White is one of a small number of people trusted by virtually every side.
Wearing one of his trademark colourful bow ties and brandishing a black walking cane (and occasionally the wig too), he cuts an eccentric figure, which is confirmed whenever he starts to talk. “Yesterday my little boys said to me, ‘Daddy you’re really weird. You’ve got big feet, funny ties, you speak funny, and you sit with terrorists all the time.’ They told me, ‘You’re a nerd and a geek’”.
The fact that he “speaks funny” is due to Multiple Sclerosis which he was diagnosed with at the age of 33, shortly after being appointed as director of international ministry at Coventry Cathedral in 1998. While the illness takes its toll, White seems to regard it as a minor inconvenience to his ministry in the Middle East, which involves interacting with people of all kinds. This explains the “sitting with terrorists”. He has been involved in fostering better relationships between rival Muslim factions in Iraq, negotiating in many hostage situations, and has played a key role in religious peace agreements both in Israel and Iraq.
“Nice people don’t usually cause problems,” he says, “it’s usually bad people. And there aren’t many who are prepared to deal with bad people.” White, however, is prepared to engage with people, whoever they are, for the sake of peace. As well as leading a church in a war zone, it means that he himself is often a target, and has learned to live with a price on his head. Last year, his increasingly high profile ministry led to an ITV documentary with Rageh Omaar.
A charismatic evangelical by background (J John and Mahesh Chavda are among his closest friends), he also has a natural affinity for those of other traditions, and indeed religions. In the Middle East his friendships have spread far and wide. St George’s has experienced enormous growth since he was appointed in 2005, and the congregation reflects White’s broad appeal. “Every denomination meets in our church, and most of the people who benefit from our facilities are Muslims. I think as the priest in charge, I’m the only Anglican in Baghdad.”
Anglican or not, I am glad that this irrepressibly larger-than-life “geek” is there, as I suspect are many others.
You work in the most volatile parish in the world – what does church look like in that context?
St George’s Church in Baghdad is so huge now – we can’t fit people in on Sunday. We have plastic chairs, pews provided by God TV, and hundreds of people standing outside because they just can’t get in. We have several services at the weekend, and we have to tell people that they are only allowed to come to church once. We also have an incredible relationship between the church and the military chapel. They meet together during the week. The soldiers’ home churches in the USA support us, and they love the people.
Why is the church so popular?
One visitor called St George’s “the church of the future”, because every denomination meets in our church. People come because we love the people, they love God, and we also provide for them. We realised it’s not just about worship, it’s also about providing food, clothes and health care. We have three doctors, three dentists, a clinic in the church and a pharmacy. Everything is free, and that’s not the case anywhere else in Iraq. Most of our patients are Muslims and we are delighted about that. We will provide for anybody and everybody. If you don’t believe St George’s is the best church in the world, just come and see for yourself!
Even so, it is dangerous to be a Christian in Baghdad. I baptised a whole family in January this year, the following week they were all killed.
If it is so dangerous why are people flocking to the church?
They have been Christians from the very beginning, far longer than any of us in the UK. About 2,700 years ago a really miserable evangelist went to Iraq by submarine transportation. He was called Jonah. Then about 2,000 years ago another miserable guy turned up on his way to India, called doubting Thomas. He said to them, “Are you aware that your Messiah has come?” They said, “No, nobody’s told us.” Then they all believed and to this day there has been a strong Christian presence in Iraq. Now what place do you know where they would still remain Christian 2,700 years after the evangelist turned up?
In Iraq, being a Christian is so significant. I don’t think that people at our church get “converted”, they have never known anything else. They’ve always loved Jesus, and to be a Christian in Iraq means you take faith seriously from the day you are born.
Was the Iraq war justified?
Yes it was. It was totally justified as far as I’m concerned. I was there before the war began and saw what the Iraqi regime was like and could see there was absolutely nothing the Iraqi people could do by themselves to overcome Saddam Hussein.
Even given the instability that has persisted?
Lots of mistakes were made after the war, including not realising the role of religion. I spoke to one of the American officials who said, “We can’t deal with religion, right now we need to sort out water and electricity.” And then they came back to me a few months later and said, “We can’t even sort out water and electricity because religion keeps getting in the way.” In the US, religion and state are separate, but it doesn’t work like that in the Middle East at all. Through our work the military and political diplomatic factions have increasingly seen the significant role of religion in building restoration and democracy.
You have worked as a peacemaker in Iraq and in the Israel/Palestine conflict – are you allowed to say who is at fault?
There are some people, such as al-Qaeda, you clearly cannot work with. But there are others where you have to be very careful about saying who is at fault when you are working alongside them. It’s very important to be neutral. People often talk about ‘justice’. As far as I’m concerned that means working for what you want. ‘Justice’ has come to mean ‘Just what I want’. I don’t even like mentioning the word, it’s been abused by so many people with a political agenda.
How have you viewed statements on the Israel/ Palestine conflict from churches in the West?
Churches either ignore the Palestinians and just take the side of the Israelis or just take the side of Palestinians and ignore the other. Both are in need and both have rights.
Why has the issue become so polarised in the Christian church?
Because there is such a lack of understanding even about scripture and what is really required of those who would follow in the footsteps of the almighty. We can’t say God is on this side or that side. We can say we believe God supports the establishment of Israel, but if we take Isaiah 19 seriously then God has also chosen Iraq and Egypt! And we also have to take seriously that God is on the side of the oppressed. “The alien” are those who are not in the majority.
You are known as ‘the vicar of Baghdad’ – not a job many would want. What makes you want to do it?
I’m mad! When the Church of England told me I was too ill to continue working because of my Multiple Sclerosis, I went to Baghdad.
What impact has living with MS had on your ministry?
None really. I feel ill a lot of times, but it doesn’t prevent me from doing anything I have to do. The bizarre thing is that I’m now receiving treatment in Baghdad in a way that I can’t in the UK, with stem cell treatment. I asked my doctor in Baghdad, “Have you ever done this before?” and he said, “No. But I can learn on you because you bought me this machine seven years ago!”
Strangely, my symptoms tend to ease when I’m in Baghdad – there was an article in the British Medical Journal a few years ago that said people with MS get worse under stress, apart from in war zones.
Are there any bits of your job a normal vicar would relate to?
I would hate to be a normal vicar. Can you imagine me in a normal parish? I said to my wife once, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a normal church in a little country parish?” And she said, “They couldn’t cope with you and you couldn’t cope with them.”
My personality is definitely more suited to working in the Middle East. I’m very much about engaging with people. I dread the thought of having to deal with the minutiae of finance and administration. I’d be no good at that. Life in Baghdad is about engaging with people.
Have you had any of the issues that Western churches might face, over preferences of style, theology, leadership etc?
Early on we did. We had differences of opinion over theology from some of the church leaders. But they were all kidnapped and killed, so now we’ve got no problems.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that. Does that kind of situation put leadership squabbles into perspective?
I talk about love every week at St. George’s. You want to be a Christian? You want to know what it’s about? It’s simple. We love each other and we love God.
What about your mission? Are you there to evangelise Muslims?
We never try to convert Muslims. It’s totally inappropriate. They would be killed and that’s not my calling. The spiritual battle in Iraq is about those who want to abuse people with the power of religion and those who want to use religion to create something beautiful.
Can that take place in both a Christian and Muslim context?
Yes. Even though that may sound pluralistic. I am profoundly orthodox in my Christian faith, but I spend my time with Muslims mainly, and many of them are wonderful people. The person who gets me to church each week is the Iraqi Shiite Muslim National Security adviser. He gets his soldiers to take me to church each week, without them I couldn’t do it. I watched him in our service the other day and he was in tears at the front of our church. He couldn’t get over how he met with God there, and how wonderful God was.
What has been your greatest achievement, and has anything ever made you think, “I want to leave now”?
The greatest achievement is that we have got the top Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders, who were enemies, to be best of friends. And they meet each other every month, with us or without us, and they really are friends.
I have never felt like I want to leave. Sometimes the Ambassador has told me I should leave as it’s too dangerous, such as when the militants put up posters of me saying “wanted dead or alive”. You know, that kind of thing. But generally, no. It’s really dangerous but I’m not afraid in the slightest, because perfect love casts out all fear.
What about your family back in the UK?
My family get scared occasionally. But I’ve also got family in Iraq. I brought six of the children from the church over to the UK last summer. I said to one of the little girls, “I think when you are bigger you should marry my boy”. And she laughed and laughed at me and said, “How could I marry him? He’s my brother.” And they really think I’m their daddy. Most of them have had their fathers killed or kidnapped, so they really do think I belong to them as well.
You are under incredible demands, how do you feed your own faith?
I have a very childlike faith. I have never doubted. I have always loved Jesus, and I have always known he loves me. I listen to him and he listens to me, and I talk to him and he talks to me. So we’re friends. The things going on around me have an impact, inasmuch as they define the kinds of things I discuss with our heavenly father. But they never have a negative impact on my faith.
You seem to have a natural affinity with people of all different kinds. Has that been the secret of what you have achieved?
I think it is important to be able to engage with a multitude of people, both political and diplomatic people, military and religious leaders. One of the key things is realising that if you are about peace making you’ve got to be involved with the people who cause conflict and war. Nice people don’t usually cause problems. It’s usually bad people.
And there aren’t many who are prepared to deal with bad people. Do people say there are certain groups you shouldn’t be working with?
Oh yes. People do criticise. They are usually Christians. And Christians are really boring. I dare you to write that!
Is there an answer to peace in the Middle East?
I don’t know. It has to be to do with God. But I do not even know if there will be a solution, or peace in the Middle East. If you’d asked me that question five years ago I’d have given you a long and complicated political or diplomatic answer, but now I can’t. So much of what I had thought and planned has turned out differently and instead I end up seeing the working hand of God in a miraculous way, continuously.