Andrew White: 'The vast majority of muslims are our friends'

The Monday Interview: With his 30 armed guards, Andrew White, 'Vicar of Baghdad', lives on Christianity's front line. Jerome Taylor meets him

Canon Andrew White leans over his desk and – with a mischievous glint in his eye – prepares to deliver what I now suspect is a signature move when greeting new guests. Handing over a copy of one of his books, his face breaks into a wide grin as he asks: "Would you like me to sign that for you? I tell you what, I'll use this pen. It was the same one used to sign Saddam Hussein's death sentence."



Such a macabre piece of historical memorabilia might appear an unusual keepsake for an Anglican priest but then Canon White – the so-called Vicar of Baghdad – is no ordinary clergyman. As pastor to St George's, the only Anglican church in Iraq, Canon White has been on the front line of the most violent and barbaric persecution of a Christian minority in living memory.

Cut off from the streets of Baghdad by blast-proof barriers, razor wire and round-the-clock security, St George's is one of the few churches still able to operate weekly services for the Iraqi capital's rapidly diminishing Christian congregation. Scores of his worshippers have been kidnapped or murdered, and militants have routinely tried to storm the complex which lies outside the comparative safety of the Green Zone.

Canon White, 47, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has been shot at and kidnapped but still he returns, making sure to spend at least three weeks of every month with an embattled congregation that refer to him as their abouna (father).

The 6ft 2in, bowtie-loving priest spoke on a brief visit back to his picturesque home in a quiet Hampshire village which he shares with his wife and two boys (for security reasons he asks us not to give their names or location). The stopover was part publicity tour for his new book Faith Under Fire, part a chance to catch up with the family.

The Hampshire house is a pretty, single-storey family home in a quiet curving cul-de-sac, containing a theologian's study filled with books and crucifixes from across the world. Work is a war zone 3,000 miles away, where Canon White is protected by 30 security guards. A place of sandbags and terror, particularly for Iraqi Christians, whose population has plummeted in the past 20 years from 1.4 million to just 300,000.

The fountain pen, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki borrowed for a couple of days and used to sign Saddam's death warrant, is a way of breaking the ice before talking about a subject that will inevitably be gruesome. We meet just days after Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's only Christian cabinet member, was gunned down in Islamabad and it is inevitable that the conversation quickly turns to violent persecution of Christians. "All over the world there are increasing threats against Christians," Canon White says. "Bhatti's death is deeply disturbing. But when you're living in the midst of the fire like in Baghdad, it's really what happens there that concerns you. We have had 123 people killed in Baghdad since November."

Last year in fact was a particularly brutal year for Iraq's Christians and 2011 looked like it was going to be no different. But in the past few weeks the killings have stopped.

As head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, Canon White has built unparalleled relationships with Iraq's senior Sunni and Shia clerics. In late January he gathered them in Copenhagen to issue a joint fatwa (religious edict) condemning any attacks on minority communities. "Until then Christians were being killed every day," he says. "After the fatwa the killings stopped. It's crucial to remember that the vast majority of Muslims we work with, they are our friends. We can only do what we do with their help."

When he is not administering to his flock, it is these kinds of delicate negotiations between Iraq's religious power players that occupy much of Canon White's time in Baghdad. He has been a key negotiator in kidnappings including that of the IT worker Peter Moore, who was released, and Ken Bigley, who was killed. He has himself been taken hostage, held in a room where freshly severed fingers and toes littered the floor, and has negotiated for the release of countless Iraqis. The violence he has seen is harrowing. Does he ever lose his faith? "Never," he says. "If anything, my faith has got stronger." It's a reply you often hear from religious people in conflict zones – but how can religion be a force for good when it does so much harm in these situations?

"I remind myself that if religion is a force for bad it is also a force for good," he says. "If religion is the cause of this horrific violence then it is also the cure. The only way you will be able to stop this violence is engage with Iraq's religions in a religious way. The best thing we can do is work with the Islamic leaders as most of them are not terrorists."

Canon White places the blame for the violence against his congregants squarely at the feet of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the primarily foreign militant network inspired by Osama bin Laden. "Those who instigate violence are mainly from outside," he says. "There are certain people you simply can't work with and the al-Qa'ida people fall into that category."

But he is equally infuriated by Christian bigots and publicity seekers – such as the American pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn the Koran. "Pastor Terry Jones is directly responsible for the murder of some of our people," Canon White says. "They have no idea how terrible it was. Throughout the time he threatened to burn the holy Koran, they were warning us that our people would be attacked. Four of my guards were killed throughout that time. He can try and say from the safety of Florida he was trying to make an important point. But it was an important point that killed our people."

Canon White was himself a supporter of the American-led invasion of Iraq, but after all the killing, the mutilations, the kidnappings and the mass exodus of Iraq's Christians – does he still think it was worth it?

It's the first time he seems unsure of himself. "I had one day in the whole of my life when I thought to myself, why did we do this," he says. "But I remember what it was like in Iraq before the war, the fear people lived under." Yet he adds: "But at least you could walk down the street."

I press again, was it really worth it, so much violence, so many deaths?

"I had seen the terror of the Saddam regime and I knew there was absolutely nothing the Iraqis could do to remove that terror," he replies. "It's been hell. So many people killed. I still say the regime had to be removed but we should have done things differently afterwards."

Regrets are a luxury Canon White cannot afford. He has a flock in Iraq to attend to. While a semblance of peace has returned for Baghdad's Christians thanks to the joint fatwa, Canon White knows it is temporary. "From my years and years in Palestine, Israel and Baghdad I know that the majority of people can live together," he says. "But you only need a few fanatics and it all falls to pieces."

Christianity under fire

IRAQ In the past 20 years, the flight of Christians has reduced the community's population from 1.4 million to 300,000.

EGYPT On New Year's Day, 21 Copts were killed in a bomb in Alexandria.

PAKISTAN Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's only Christian cabinet member, was assassinated last week.

NORTH KOREA Christianity is vehemently prosecuted in North Korea, where any expression of religion in the totalitarian state is viewed as open insurrection against the Communist regime.

NIGERIA Sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria has broken out with horrendous violence over the past two years in and around the city of Jos.

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