Editor's note: The Deseret News has identified six heroes of 2014 — men and women making an impact in our six areas of emphasis. The Rev. Canon Andrew White is our hero in the arena of faith.
In May, the Rev. Canon Andrew White was cautiously optimistic about the future of his work as senior pastor of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq. Christianity, after all, had been in the Middle Eastern nation for two millennia, but a dozen years of war and instability were taking their toll.
"What I do know is we will still be there," said White, who turned 50 this year. "We will not have left."
That stance evaporated a few months later, after the Islamic State reportedly put a $56 million (£38 million) price on White's head, according to London's Sunday Times newspaper. The Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, a longtime friend as well as White's ultimate supervisor, reportedly ordered White out of Baghdad.
"Our position is that we are not commenting. But thank you for asking," Welby's spokesman said in response to a Deseret News inquiry.
While the "Vicar of Baghdad" may be in exile from the parish he'd served for 15 years, he has not given up on the Iraqi Christians he has cared for as a pastor and physician. Others, including Sarah Ahmed, an Iraqi dentist and a Muslim, are his eyes and ears on the ground while White travels to minister to the Iraqi Christian diaspora in Jordan, Erbil and even in Chicago, according to those close to him.
"He is just one of those once-in-a-lifetime sorts of religious leaders whom God has put in a very strategic place, to confront evil, restore brokenness and challenge believers to be that sort of a global Christian," said John Stonestreet, a senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, which gave White its Wilberforce Award this year.
A scattered flock
The fortunes of religious minorities in Iraq have been an up-and-down matter since coalition forces led by the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. Hussein was a ruthless dictator who ordered the torture and killing of many, particularly minority Kurds. But he also afforded minority faiths protections and even special favors, as a way to ingratiate his Ba'ath Party regime with the country's various factions.
That "tolerance" vanished, however, in the wake of the American withdrawal from Iraq. The insurgency created by the Islamic State, a group also known as ISIL or ISIS, has become a crusade to remove any non-Islamic religion from the area.
"Everybody who is watching this, who is sensitive to the Christian minority (in Iraq) is worried that ISIS may achieve its goal (in) a region that was known as a cultural crossroads and a spectacular cultural mosaic," said Nina Shea, a scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington who is also on the American board of White's Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. "While all religions in Iraq are suffering, the Christians are a 2,000-year-old civilization and a presence there that is being completely eradicated, one with direct ties to the earliest years of the Christian church."
The threats to Iraqi Christians were nothing new to White, who told the Deseret News in May, "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."
So White, who stayed as long as he could and who urged his congregation to remain resolute, recognized that fleeing the mayhem might be the best strategy for his flock.
"I know my people might die if they stay," he conceded. "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?"
According to activist Shea, one million Iraqi Christians have fled Iraq for the West since 2004, while at most, 200,000 remain. "Most of the recent refugees are in Erbil or in refugee camps in adjacent lands such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon," she said, and "they're barely surviving" in makeshift housing and tents as wintry temperatures settle in across the region.
A good physician
White, who did not grow up Anglican but was raised in a family that attended Baptist and Pentecostal services, was initially trained as an anesthetist and worked in British hospitals before studying for the Church of England's ministry. He'd spent a few years in parish ministry in England, but soon became interested in the plight of Christians in the Middle East. That led to work in Baghdad, at first delivering medicines and then reviving St. George's, the only Anglican church in the region.
His ministry attracted admiration from many quarters, and White is regularly awarded accolades and honors for his dedication. The Netherlands Embassy in Washington last fall presented White with an inaugural award bearing the name of Anne Frank, the Jewish girl hidden during the Nazi occupation of Holland before dying in a concentration camp.
According to the embassy, White said, "Working for peace is never easy, but that is not a reason for me to just give up. Even when there’s no love being showed to us, we have to give people our love. Even if there is evil coming our way, we cannot respond with evil."
Now, Shea notes, White is removed from Baghdad physically, but remains close to his people in exile. She said White "is providing humanitarian aid, he is preaching and he is opening up schools in both places and restarting the clinic. What he pioneered in Baghdad, he is trying to replicate in places where the Iraqi Christians have gone."
That replication follows what this good physician described as the clinic at St. George's in Baghdad, the one where Ahmed first came to work.
It was "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," White said in May. "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."
What motivates White's dogged persistence? Katrina Lantos Swett, currently chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says it's the reverend canon's beliefs.
"His faith inspires him," she said. "I would have to say it is also this expansive, inclusive spirit of love that emanates from this man. (He) exudes this sense of genuine love and personal connection to the people he's pastoring and on whose behalf he has put his life at great risk."
Stonestreet, of the Colson Center, described the impact exile is having on White: "He's reaching out to refugees in other parts of the Middle East. It's so underreported. The overall population of that parish has been decimated by the evils of ISIS. He feels that as a great personal loss, because he put his heart and soul and energies there, even though he can't be there now."
While White was expansive in a 30-minute conversation last May, a reporter connecting via telephone in early December was able to capture just a few sentences before the line to Jerusalem, one of the Canon's regular stopping points, went dead.
"I can't be there; things are very difficult," White said of the situation in Baghdad. "I am with our refugees, particularly in Jordan and northern Iraq. We don't know what will happen," he added.
Despite the hardships, he declared, "We are really blessed because there are Christians and Jews around the world who have been helping us and sending us help so that we can feed our refugees. Just last week, we fed 50,000 people one day and (gave) 45,000 bottles of water the next."
The immediate outlook, though, is bleak. "We are in a situation where we are absolutely desperate. We need help."