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'Vicar of Baghdad' works for reconciliation in Iraq, Middle East

Take one look at the Rev. Canon Andrew White's life and you might say, "This man just doesn't know when to quit."

The Anglican vicar of St. George's Church in Baghdad, Iraq, has seen nearly 1,300 of his 6,500 parishioners killed in the past decade — most from terror attacks. Yet the Rev. White, a British-born anesthesiologist-turned-priest, has a steely determination to stay and serve "my people," despite the dangers.

Known as the "Vicar of Bagdad," the Rev. White is also president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, and recently sponsored a three-day encounter between Israeli rabbis and Iraqi Muslim leaders in Cyprus. Against daunting odds, the Rev. White presses on, believing reconciliation between Muslims, Christians and Jews is possible.

The clergyman divides his time between Baghdad, where St. George's operates a school and medical clinic, and his family in Britain. He calls it "the world's longest commuter marriage."

Nominated by Wheaton College President Philip Ryken as someone who embodies the spirit of British anti-slavery reformer William Wilberforce, the Rev. White recently received the 2014 William Wilberforce Award from the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview in Lansdowne, Virginia. Before accepting the honor at a May 3 ceremony, he spoke with the Deseret News.

Deseret News: I know that you are working for reconciliation in the Middle East — is it really possible?

Rev. Canon Andrew White: (Long pause) It's really difficult. It isn't easy, it's a constant struggle, it's something we hope for. At the very heart, reconciliation in the Middle East has to be — even in Baghdad, even in Iraq — we have to engage between the Middle East Arab countries and Israel.

We have just held a very big meeting between the Israel religious leaders, the rabbis and the Iraqi ayatollahs and sheiks. Who would have thought it was possible? We held it in Cyprus, we brought together Israel and Iraq, the Shia and the Israelis — the Yehudi, the Islami and the Masihi — Jews, Christians and Muslims together. It's hard, but it happened!

And this is a part of the thing; we are on a journey, and the journey is a journey of reconciliation. It's hard, it's a difficult journey, but we never give in. As Churchill said, "Never, ever, ever give in!" And we won't! That's why I've been there 15 years, and we've only just begun.

DN: When you had this meeting in Cyprus, what was the response, what was the result?

AW: (One of) the rabbis said, "Three days we have been together, and for three days, I have three words: fear is canceled." The Islamic cleric said, "We came here, hating Israel, hating Jews, hating everything they stood for. We leave loving the Jews, loving Israel, and loving everything they stand for." That is reconciliation; however hard it is, they looked at each other and they loved each other.

DN: Isn't it sort of a secret — an open secret, I guess — that if the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians could cooperate in the region, you could have tremendous things happen. You would have an economic power and an intellectual power that would be quite something.

AW: Yet, for so many of the people who are willing to engage with the Jews, their lives are at risk, because they've encountered the "other." Our Islamic leaders (in Iraq) were literally putting their lives at risk by meeting with the other, by loving the other. These aren't the (Seventh-day) Adventists, who have so much in common with the Jews; these are the people who hate them.

The one thing which (has) combined the Arabs and the Palestinians together is their hatred of Israel. It's the one thing they have in common. They don't have a lot in common, but they do that.

DN: And if you take that hatred away, what happens?

AW: Their system can collapse, and so they (the Palestinian leadership) do not easily like to see it taken away. They try to actually maintain their position, because that's what gives them a purpose and a future and a hope. Without it, their future is very, very limited.

DN: In Baghdad today, what is it like being a Christian, and what is it like serving a parish?

AW: First of all, what is it like being in Baghdad today? You're in one of the most dangerous areas in the world. It's dangerous for you whether you're a Sunni, a Shia, a Masihi (Christian), Yazidi (Kurdish Zoroastrian sect), Mandaean (a monotheistic Iraqi sect) — it's dangerous for everybody. And for a Christian, one thing we have in common with the others is it's dangerous. It's really dangerous!

I had a church, originally after the war, of six and a half thousand. In the last 10 years, I have had 1,276 of my people killed. One thousand, two hundred and seventy-six. It's a lot.

DN: How do you do it? How do you keep going through that?

AW: When it happens, it hurts, you cry. But then, you meet with your people and you realize you love them, and they love you. And it is love that keeps us going — love, love, love.

We say at the end of the service, each week, in Arabic, "Al houb, al houb, al houb," we love, love, and love. And that's what is our driving force.

DN: What hope do you give the young people in your charge, in your care, because it is so difficult right now?

AW: It's really difficult. I used to say to them, "Don't you leave me; I promise you I never will leave you." Now, I can't say that to them, because I know my young people; I know my people might die if they stay. I know that so many of my close people who were there and now are no longer there; they have gone. They have gone to Canada, they have gone to Chicago. Do you know there are now more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than in Iraq?

Last week, I was at Wheaton College in Illinois, and I went to see my people, my congregation, my parishioners in Chicago. And I'm speaking at one of the churches, and they said to us, "How can we help your people in Iraq?" I said, "If you really want to help our people, they're here in your city. They need help."

Sarah (Ahmed) is the chief of staff of my team. Sarah is a dental surgeon. I have a big clinic, we have dentists, doctors, we have a school, we have a church. Sarah is a Muslim, and yet she is the closest one of my team to me. Everything I do, she does, and a bit more. I can't do teeth. I might be a medical man — I can put people to sleep, but I can't deal with their teeth. She does that. But it's actually very good that both of us are, in essence, medical. We're caring for our people spiritually and physically, and that actually means we understand each other.

DN: Looking out five years from now, what do you imagine, what do you envision?

AW: If you'd asked me that 10 years ago, I would have told you that in five years we would have achieved this, this and this. We haven't achieved those things yet. We have achieved incredible violence, massacres, terrorism. I do not know, now, what is going to happen next.

What I do know is we will still be there. We will not have left.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com Twitter: @Mark_Kellner