Robert Fisk: Under siege but vicar of Baghdad is still spreading the word

 

Share
Related Topics

Andrew White got his blue Iraqi badge on Wednesday – the pass that allows him to move around Baghdad. The Anglican Chaplain to Iraq supported the US invasion – he still thinks Saddam shipped his weapons of mass destruction off to Syria before the Anglo-American armies arrived – and as someone who used an American pass to get about, the end of the occupation must have contained a special irony. "From the day the Americans left, their passes didn't work any more. I couldn't do anything. But now I've got the new Iraqi badge. It's fine."

White says he has even asked for Iraqi nationality. "They won't let me. Iraqis come to London and five years later they're British. I've been here for 14 years. Why can't I be Iraqi?" I ponder this one. He's of Anglo-Indian stock and looks a lot more Iraqi than many Iraqis. But I doubt if his citizenship – his wife's great-great grandfather was foreign secretary Joseph Chamberlain – is exactly at the top of the al-Maliki agenda in Baghdad.

I like Andrew White. He's larger than life, brave, a combination of a quote-a-day preacher, Martin Luther, Terry Waite and a Vicar for All Seasons. I find myself gasping at his mixture of frankness and wire-tripping, criticising the Iraqi Christian clergy as well as Muslim prelates – "That's the problem with this place, everyone thinks they're in charge" (that was his Maundy Thursday sermon) – and I suspect he might be more popular with his friends in Islam than his brothers in Christianity.

His work for Muslim-Christian reconciliation (in Baghdad, Alexandria, Copenhagen, Coventry, you name it) while ministering to a flock in Baghdad he simply can't protect is somewhat close to that old cliché: awesome. He's lost members of his church council to kidnappers (11 in one day in 2005, between Fallujah and Ramadi, and never seen again), seen his flock murdered in the streets, even his own security guards killed, 270 of his congregation murdered in five years; for months, he lived in the notorious Green Zone, freighted by armoured cars and armoured men to and from St George's Church in Haifa Street.

St George's is Andrew White's cathedral, his parish, his "heaven" – his word, and I'll keep it that way – and was built to commemorate the British and Commonwealth dead of the 1914-18 war. Its fine stained-glass regimental windows were long ago shattered by bombs, and even the remaining plaque to "one million dead who fell in the Great War" has been gashed by shrapnel.

In 2009, a bomb in Haifa Street that killed 164 Iraqis sent arms and legs sailing through the empty windows of St George's. Now its garden boasts a small pyramid to commemorate eight Danish soldiers killed in Iraq between 2005 and 2008, a tiny reminder of the cost in Western blood of the Bush-and-Blair arrogance of power. A Christian population of one and a half million has been reduced to 200,000, courtesy of a born-again Christian from Texas.

But then up pops the ornery side of Andrew White. He patiently explains that his church received financial help from the Americans under Bush. "That all stopped when Obama took over." The collapse of the Christian minority is a tragedy which the West has still not faced. It is now scattered across Sweden, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, America ... Andrew White now runs a reconciliation council which includes Yazidis, Turkmen, Mandiens (followers of John the Baptist), Messihis, Faili (Shia) Kurds, you name it. He regards senior members of the Sunni and Shia clergy as his friends. The fatwa against all sectarian killings was partly his work.

But then suddenly, White becomes the country parson, tut-tutting at our lack of faith. General Angus Maude ("liberator" of Great War Baghdad) and Gertrude Bell, one of the inventors of Churchill's Iraq, are both interred in the British cemetery. "Maude only came to our church once and then he died of cholera (he didn't boil his milk) and he is buried in our cemetery. Gertrude Bell is buried in our cemetery – but never came to our church!" Suddenly, White's the imaginary Vicar of Aynsford (where he was born), questioning our need for Christian burial if we lack Christian faith. I smile weakly. White also cares for Iraq's seven remaining Jews, angrily telling me that a US cable released by WikiLeaks identified all by name, complete with their home addresses. "They are quite frightened," he says. As the French say: J'imagine.

It's impossible not to admire White. He's a media man to his bones, of course, but he's also a scholar, a former medical doctor who studied Hebrew at Cambridge, Rabbinics at Mea Sharim, speaks Hebrew and used to speak Yiddish. In Iraq, most Christians speak Aramaic. White points out that there is a Jewish shrine for Ezekial (Dhu Alkafel for Muslims) between Babylon and Najaf, now a Shia shrine. "The imam from there comes to this room and chats to me."

At 47, White suffers from multiple sclerosis and has endured years of pain, a courage that must impress the Muslim and Christian members of his High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. But there's always something in the wings when you talk to Andrew White. He signs his book, The Vicar of Baghdad, for me and casually remarks that the then Iraqi prime minister used this very pen to sign Saddam Hussein's death warrant. "Of course, I didn't know he was going to use it for that!" Andrew White says. He hands me the pen. For historians, it is an expensive black Pelikan. I leave through his Iraqi security checkpoints, one after another. He lives in a prison within a prison within a prison within a prison. His words, not mine.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...

Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 6 Teacher RequiredThis teaching...

SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's Stortford / Stansted

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Lorena Ochoa tees off from the 18th with the St Andrews clubhouse in the background, during the 2007 Women's British Open  

There’s a momentous vote in Scotland today: St Andrews may admit women golfers

Jane Merrick
 

Scottish independence: A fairer Scotland is within our grasp

Blair Jenkins
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week