The Vicar Of Baghdad On Why He Preaches Another Iraq War

24/11/2014 12:42 | Updated 27 July 2015

Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is featuring its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.

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"To find peace," Andrew White said on a recent Thought For The Day. "Sometimes we have to take risks."

The Vicar of Baghdad would know, living what must be the most dangerous life of any Anglican minister in the world.

His views on the Middle East have often put him at odds with the Church. In his 20s, he abandoned a career as a doctor to become a vicar, eventually heading up the Church of England's International Centre for Reconciliation (ICR) where his work took him to the Middle East.

He backed the 2003 invasion in Iraq and afterwards restored St George's, the only Anglican church in the country. He has endured kidnappings, bombings and the recent onslaught of Islamic State, which forced him to leave in the face of grave threats to his life. Now, he is pushing for more war, saying the countries that invaded Iraq must go back in force to stop IS.

When he moves outside his church, White was protected by up to 35 Iraqi guards. But when he meets The Huffington Post UK, he is sitting without protection in a leather arm chair, at his home in Liphook, Hampshire. By White's own estimation, he has spent 70 to 80 days of the year at most in the UK since he went to the Middle East.

A family friend of White's told me he seems to know everyone wherever he is, to which White replies: "The only place I've ever been where I don't know everybody is here." The walls of this room are covered in crucifixes he collects, maps of Iraq and Baghdad and a letter from former US President George W. Bush thanking him for his work there.

The 50-year-old is a compulsive spokesman. He has written three volumes of autobiography and excitedly describes having just finished a fourth. He flew in hours earlier but has already spoken to The Sunday Times before sitting down with me. Halfway through the interview, he takes a call from The Sun, who want an interview and an "alternate Christmas message". After exclaiming "The Sun!" with distaste, he agrees to do both but he says can only fit in a phone chat at 7.30am on Sunday, when he will be on his way to a service. This is only possible because an interview with The Observer has been postponed. When the phone rings later, I'm relieved it's an automated message about a boiler installation.

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The Vicar of Baghdad at home

The Vicar of Baghdad is in exile. He left Iraq last month, after Justin Welby, in White's words, said: "Basically, I'm more use alive than dead." "I had to agree with him," he adds. "I listened very seriously to him. I might not like it. But both he and my bishop said I really needed to be out of there". He now divides most of his time between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, speaking of the plight of Iraq's Christians wherever he can.

He describes their current situation as "bad, bad, bad". He does not know if the church was responding to a specific threat when it asked him to leave but he says, so long as he is a vicar, he must obey. Reflecting on the situation there, he uses a mixture of black humour and passionate advocacy. But the most striking thing about the conversation is the grim understatement. This is a man for whom the abnormal has become normal.

"I'm in touch with my people every day", he says. When asked how it feels to be apart, he adds: "Very painful. But I know it's the right thing. I may have objected vehemently originally [to leaving] but I know it the right thing. If I was there, they would eventually get me. Me being there also puts my people at more risk. It's bad enough being a Christian but an ex-pat Christian? It's not very good."

Andrew White on Newsnight

White says many of his congregation fled to Nineveh and Mosul in the north in previous years, to escape violence in Baghdad. "That's the precise area that ISIS came in and removed all the Christians," he says. "They killed lots of them." He estimated around 3,500 of his congregation had fled there. "They were people literally living on the street or in the desert," he says. "Totally exposed, they had nothing."

White's charity, the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East (FRRME), has worked to get supplies to northern Iraq but communication and access have become harder since IS broke through. "I've been up there. It's very, very difficult," he says. "There's no concept of them repelling ISIS. Christians aren't very good fighters. They don't know much about fighting."

The St George's congregation peaked at 6,500. But as violence worsened after the 2003 invasion, people fled. It's now at around 1,000. How many of those have died and how many have simply fled? "Until the present crisis, I know I'd had 1,267 killed. How many now have been killed? I don't know." When I ask how he recalls that number instantly, White says: "That's the people I've known, I've added to, when it's happened. They've not been targeted because they're Christians. They're killed because they're in Iraq. People get killed and blown up. Wrong place, wrong time. It doesn't matter where you are, they'll get you."

I ask how many people close to him has he seen die. For the first time, the emotion of what he is describing gets to him. "Oh, so many," he says, wincing. "So many."

He pauses. "Just a few weeks before ISIS started, probably two or three weeks. My hairdresser! He was blown up, killed. His mother's one of our people. I've known so many."

In 2005, the church's lay pastor, his wife, his 14-year-old son and his assistant went to a Christian conference in Jordan. He rang White by satellite phone as they crossed the border back into Iraq. They, together with the driver and three others in the group, were never seen again. "All of them were kidnapped," White says. "They were all taken." No ransom demand was ever sent. They simply vanished.

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Police guard a Christian church in Baghdad during heightened security fears in 2010

It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when White developed his spirit for such tireless work in such dangerous circumstances. Previous subjects of Beyond Belief have described Damascene moments of conversion to a cause. White has one too, but it feels more routine than revelatory.

He was born in 1964 into a Baptist household, the son of a civil servant and a former nurse who were "very, very, very" religious. Religion was, he says, "pushed down my throat". "I loved it," he adds. "I never once objected. Always agreed with it. Still do." When he was 10, he told a teacher he wanted to be an anaesthetist and a priest but was told: "You can't. You can only do one thing. You can't be a priest anyway because you're not that kind of family. You're baptist, they don't have priests."

He became an Anglican, trained to be a doctor and ended up running a cardiac arrest team at St Thomas' Hospital in London. "One day, in between cardiac arrests - they're not planned very well - I was doing my praying outside in the hospital garden. I thanked God for everything I had gathered, done. I said 'what next Lord?' and he said: 'The church'. And that was that." And White's reaction to God telling him to becoming a Church of England minister? "But they're not even all Christians. They're woolly liberals."

He trained for ministry at Ridley Hall, a theological college in Cambridge and worked in churches in southwest London in the 1990s. Family friend Jonathan Bartley, son of White's doctor mentor Chris Bartley, was in the congregation. "He was not typical at all," he says, when asked of his first impression on meeting White when the future vicar was still a medical student. "I mean this fondly. He was a bit geeky, incredibly intelligent. He wasn't the sort of guy you'd go out to a club with on a Saturday night but you might well meet him in a club. He moved everywhere, turned up everywhere. He was comfortable in any place."

White began travelling widely, so much so that while still a curate he got in trouble with his vicar for it. On only his second ever visit to Jerusalem, he met a "forceful" woman, Sister Ruth Helfin, who having never met him before, told him "seeking the peace of Jerusalem and the Middle East" would be his life's work. Building on his study of Judaism at Cambridge, he committed to understanding Islam, convinced he would not be able to play any role in the region without it.

His work came to the attention of Pope John Paul II and he began regularly meeting him. "As a strict Baptist, I had been brought up to think of the Vatican as the home of the Antichrist," White writes in The Vicar Of Baghdad his first volume of memoirs. "But I had learned to respect Catholics for the certainty of their faith."

Just as the then 33-year-old vicar took up his coveted post at the ICR, he started suffering double vision and struggled to keep his balance. After five weeks in hospital he received the stark news that it was Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the degenerative, incurable disease that has slowed his speech and can make even simply walking difficult. Church colleagues wondered whether he'd be well enough to travel. "They realised there was no point in telling me what do," he smiles.

Taking the job made White "the only person in the Church of England paid not to be here," he says. He spent time in the Middle East and northern Nigeria, where tensions were high between Christians, working out of the Cross of Nail centres, Coventry Cathedral's network of reconciliation and education centres.

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White giving communion during a service

The job saw him move in exceptionally high, influential circles. On his wall in Liphook, pictures show him meeting Yasser Arafat and even his younger son wearing Arafat's keffiyeh on his fourth birthday, which Arafat signed and sent after learning the little boy wanted to meet him. He describes getting phone calls in 2002 from Arafat and Israel's deputy foreign minister within 10 minutes of each other, both demanding he come quickly to mediate negotiations during the siege of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem - despite the fact he was in a Coventry hospital, having suffered an MS relapse.

Bartley visited White in Jerusalem in the late 1990s. "I just remember walking down the street and everyone would say hi to him. He got us in to see [then Israeli President Ezra] Weizman and the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches. He seemed to be able to connect with all the different communities, different denominations, all the different political perspectives. Everyone seemed to love him, it was amazing."

When asked how he gains such access, White smiles and simply says: "I don't know. I spend all my time with these people now - presidents, prime ministers, patriarchs." White has negotiated his way into so many inner circles that they, like the bombings near his Baghdad church, blend together. His advice for winning people's trust is simple. "Be nice to them all. Give them dinner, invite them round to yours. When we meet, we eat," he says, gesturing to the scones and tea laid on during our interview.

He first went to Iraq in 1998 but says: "Iraq didn't want me. They said 'just stop dropping bombs here and then you can come'. I said I wasn't dropping the bombs so I couldn't really do anything about that." He quickly made an important connection - his "good friend", Saddam's deputy, Tariq Aziz, who is now in prison, awaiting execution.

"I used to go and visit him in his palace," White says. "Now I go and visit him in his prison cell."

How is he? "Bad," is White's one-word answer.

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White in 2007 with Iraqi children, after holding a service that prayed for the release of five kidnapped Britons

It was Aziz who first gave him permission to conduct services mostly to UN staff in the then-derelict St George's on Haifa Street in Baghdad's Red Zone. He insists the decision to have a presence in the city was his own, saying he wanted a "nice day out" in a tone that makes it hard to tell whether he's joking. "It was all on my own initiative. They wanted you to do high-profile things, take risks. The more I did of that, the better."

He returned in May, 2003, the tail end of the coalition invasion, knowing he had to re-open the church. "There was nobody else there to do it. So I did it."

He was amazed to find it unscathed but the buildings either side destroyed by the coalition's bombing. The first service was to around 50 military personnel, with Justin Welby, then co-director of the ICR with White, presiding amid intense security over intelligence someone was trying to blow up the building. "First of all, it was all the military and diplomats who came," White says of the growing congregation. "Then it got too dangerous for them to come. So the locals started. First, 100, second week 200, third week, 300, eventually, 6,500."

In 2005, White's ICR role came to an end and he set up FRRME to continue his reconciliation work. They started a relief programme providing food and aid to people living elsewhere in the city and built a school adjoining the church. In 2008, White and colleagues set up the free clinic in the building; "Dentists, doctors, pharmacy, cardiology, paediatrics, all of that, we built it, literally." This was done with large support from the Danish Government and the US Agency for International Development, as well as "money I raised going around speaking and preaching", White says.

Asked to describe a typical day in Baghdad, White answers in the present tense. "I spend time at the beginning meeting all my staff, seeing how the clinic is, the school, doing administrative things. I'm also chaplain to the embassies, especially to the US Embassy, I do services there every week." The Americans withdrew a huge proportion of their tens of thousands of staff after IS entered the country. His congregation in the US embassy has gone from 200 to 12. But they still needed services and so he still went.

White continues: "In the afternoon, I often go off and see our people. Most of them say none of the priests have ever been visit them before. So it's a big thing to go there and see them. We always take them food and provisions and really try and look after them."

Despite the fact St George's is Iraq's only Anglican church, White estimates around 400 who go there are Muslims. They are "particularly women" and many are drawn by the clinic and school but they begin worshipping, though Muslim women use an a separate hall within the building.

Before he was forced to leave, he was also looking after the Iraq's Jewish community, all six of them. He even does their Torah readings. For this, he drew on inspiration from his days at Cambridge, when he says Jewish students were "his closest friends". He used to go to the local synagogue. "I was with them, used to worship with them, their way." He remembers being told at the time: "'You must be careful. You're a Christian, don't forget, you're always doing the Jewish thing." He ignored them. "Engaging with Judaism by Christians is different from engaging from any other faith. The foundation of Christianity is Judaism," he says.

Would he ever worship at a mosque? At this point, he removes beads from an adjacent table. He holds them for the rest of the interview. "I do believe in engaging with Islam but it's not the same as my worship. I couldn't worship with Muslims, it's different altogether."

The church is off Haifa Street, a major road by the Tigris, a sectarian faultline and government centre. White tells me no one from his congregation has died within the church's walls but they have died "all around it". The nearest bomb was "about 10 yards" from it, he believes. One blew out all the windows and badly damaged the clinic. He struggles to remember the details of others. “It’s really difficult. When you have so many attacks, attacks are just attacks.” It became so dangerous at one point the British Ambassador insisted White move into the fortified Green Zone across the river, which he did, holding services there instead for around a year.

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St George's, pictured in 2007

In The Vicar of Baghdad, White describes walking down Haifa Street during the major 2007 gun battle there and seeing "50 to 60 bodies hanging from the trees and the lampposts". Parishioners regularly described their narrow escapes from bombings and shootings. In one month in 2007, 39 were kidnapped. Since the end of 2004, the church has been protected by bomb-proof barricades. "A very nice place," he says of it. "Surrounded by guards, soldiers and police. Really, really dangerous. But I love it."

Going outside St George's became increasingly dangerous, he says. He has seen posters in Baghdad with his photo and 'wanted: dead or alive" underneath. "People wanted to kill us." He adds his parishioners were "becoming increasingly scared, increasingly worried, increasingly afraid. But there's nothing they can do." Now IS has entered the country, they cannot flee north as others did. Without a plane ticket out of the country or a visa to go abroad, they are stranded. They are still "three to four suicide bombings most days" in the city, he adds. He says there were varying reports at one point that IS were anywhere between 30 and two miles from the capital. "What's clear is that they were probably within 25 miles and they're still close."

I ask when when he was in the most danger. "I've been shot at, I've been kidnapped, I've been in places that have been blown up. I honestly don't think about the most dangerous state I've been in, it's just life."

Before White had a huge amount of protection whenever he left the church, he was kidnapped once, or "only once", as he puts it. He was taken while out looking for "other hostages" in 2004. "I was thrown in a room, all dark. Fortunately I had my mobile phone. I was able get a little light and look around. I looked on the floor and it was full of chopped off fingers and toes. I thought 'oh dear' I might be next. I had some money on me, a lot - it wouldn't have been a lot for later on - I had a few thousand dollars and paid my way out."

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Pro-government forces fight IS northeast of Baghdad on November 23

The way White speaks about danger makes it unsurprising that he wants more to join the foray. He says foreign soldiers are what's needed to defeat IS. "You can't rely on Iraqi boots on the ground. Because they're not prepared or ready to fight as they need to. I've said it all along. The Americans and the coalition should not have pulled out when they did. I said 'if you pull out now, we will have a war within three years,' and we did." He recently asked one of his many guards what he'd do if he saw IS coming. "He said 'rip off my uniform and run'."

Does he ever think he might be wrong? A lot of people would oppose another war. Even the then-Archbishop of Canterbury opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His answer surprises me. "I was wrong before. I'm never as pious or bold as to say 'I'm not wrong'. I was wrong when I said we should go into Iraq. I was wrong because it was left far worse than it ever was before. The coalition didn't plan or take seriously what was facing us. But we caused this mess. We must do our part to clean it up and to do that, we have to be there. I knew the regime of Saddam was bad but I didn't realise afterwards we had nothing planned."

White has the ears of powerful people. His three volumes of memoir have glowing quotes from, among others, Justin Welby, Lord Carey, former head of the army Lord Dannatt and Ronald Reagan's former National Security Advisor Bub McFarlane. The list of people White knows intimately is so long it is making me suspicious. I have nightmarish visions of this interview being published only for it to be revealed that the Vicar of Baghdad is fiction, the invention of some beloved character actor.

Does he lobby for meetings? "No I don't lobby. I just seem to know everyone." After being pressed on just he how he does it, he suddenly remembers something. "Wait!" he shouts, pointing his index finger in the air then at me. "I'll tell you how I know." The example is of meeting someone at Saddam's old palace, then the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters. "Went in the dining room, couldn't find any of the Brits, took a seat with the Americans. It just turned out that the person sitting next to me was a guy called Jerry Jones. He was George Bush's chief of negotiation at the Pentagon. I got speaking to him. He said 'look, you've got to come to the Pentagon and talk to me, quickly'. I went over. We became best of friends."

The Pentagon became an essential backer of FRRME's reconciliation work, bringing religious leaders together. "Everything we needed. The Pentagon paid for it," he says. White organised summits, usually out of the country - Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey - between senior leaders from different religious groups. "If you wanted to affect anything you had to go the top to the big ayatollahs. the big sheikhs. They can affect people below them. The little people can't affect people above them. They don't have any power," White says. "We'd spend three or four days together, working through the key issues, often related to violence or what needed to be known about each group. It all just started with the listening of the stories of each other."

Things changed, he says, with the election of Barack Obama. "We had all this engagement going on. Once he was elected we had nothing," he says. "Their civil service isn't like ours. It's so identified with the ruling group. Everything changed. I might be a British Anglican priest but they all saw me as a Republican. I went to see them. After the initial meetings, they just didn't do anything."

"Everything fell to pieces. We had nothing. We had to start again, trying to raise money and support for our work. It was so difficult," he says. The Danish Government stepped up to support his efforts but, without the Americans, there was "no way of seriously of bringing about change or influence".

"There was no longer the real relationship between the Sunnis and Shia. It took months, years even, for them to really hear each other's stories. And to know the way forward. But then there wasn't that constant engagement...This is one of the problems that has given birth to ISIS."

White is also frustrated with another American, Paul Bremer, the leader of the CPA after the invasion. "I can remember going to him in 2003 and saying 'We have to engage with religious leaders, otherwise it's going to be a time of great religious tension'. He said 'Andrew, it's not very religious here, don't worry about religion'. He said they'd deal with it when it comes later but they didn't take religion seriously." It almost goes without saying that, despite Bremer being "really difficult" then, he is now White's good friend and sits on FRRME's board of trustees.

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Inside the church

Throughout White's work abroad, his wife Caroline and two sons, Josiah and Jacob, have lived in the UK. He says he "couldn't do this work without their support". They are in contact "so much so that my wife gets fed up". He says he was "a bit worried" when Josiah was not enthusiastically religious when he was younger but White is relieved he is now a regular churchgoer in Cambridge, where he's a student. Jacob, now 16, is also very involved in church. White says he would be "devastated" if he weren't.

White and his wife agreed they would not force religion on their children, as White's parents did to him. "I've seen too many people who've pushed it down their children's throats and they've reacted badly to it." I'm reminded of his earlier comments about Judaism and Islam. How would he feel if his children converted later in life?

"What do you think?" he asks. I point out working alongside people of other faiths has been his life's work. But for all his work in Muslim countries, he would not want a Muslim son. "Unless it was Judaism, I couldn't accept it," he says.

For all his work with other religions, White is still a passionate Christian first and foremost. Early in the interview, he asks whether I'm a Christian. When I reply no, he asks "why not?" and I shrug it off, saying my parents were atheists. "It doesn't matter," he says. "God still loves you." He adds: "That is the one thing that is common with everybody in Iraq. They know that when they have lost everything, God's love is the only thing they have left." Maybe disguising his fervour for conversion, when meeting those who are unlikely to go for it, is the key to his successes.

I ask whether he worries he will never be able to return to Iraq. Another short answer: "Yes". But he adds: "I will go back. I know I will. But it's bad." Will he go back whether it's safe to or not? "Yes. But I can't go back if the ABC [Archbishop of Canterbury] says no." "Inshaallah," he says - Arabic for "God willing". What if Justin Welby, "the ABC", never says yes? He smiles and says: "Then I've got a problem."

Another reason to be glad he went to Iraq was being the guinea pig for Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment by Iraqi doctors at his clinic, which was successful. "It's helped my voice. My mobility. I'm not well by any means. My balance is still really bad but I can function much more normally." He estimates doctors at FRRME's clinic have since treated around 3,700 people with other autoimmune diseases. "We reckon around 80% have seriously improved," adding patients have come from England and America. "We say - We can make you better but you might die coming."

Could he ever return to being a vicar at an English church? "Never, never. I couldn't do that. My commitment, my life is the dynamic life of dealing with conflict. That's what I do. I know I can do that well." He sometimes thinks he "wouldn't mind being the vicar of Holy Trinity Clapham Common", noting the job is available. "But I wouldn't do it." "So you wouldn't do it?" I ask. "No." "No regrets at all?" "No". He adds the Baghdad job has one advantage for a vicar with MS. "I haven't got to walk further than outside my room. I'm driven everywhere by guys with guns."

Is his family really that supportive? "As things started getting really violent and bad, they worried for the first time ever," he says. "My wife had never worried, until four to five months ago. Even the children were saying 'we don't want you there'."

"Would you ever not go back for them?" I ask. There's a pause. I keep going. "If the ABC approved your return but your family wanted you to stay, would you ever decide 'maybe they've got a point' and stay?"

"No."

Even after nearly two hours of talking to the Vicar of Baghdad, I am stunned. I press him more, and he repeats it, smiling. "I know my family would approve."

After everything White has described, his family agreeing to let him go back to Iraq seems mad. But somehow, the Vicar of Baghdad has made it sound perfectly normal.

As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.

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