National Edition

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

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 11:20 a.m. MDT

The Rev. Canon Andrew White is the vicar of St. George's Church in Baghdad, Iraq.

Provided by Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the 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?

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere