When ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ Andrew White sat on Saddam’s throne

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British priest led an Iraqi Christian congregation for 11 years until Islamic State’s rise forced him to leave. He tells Sarah Lazarus about getting enemies talking, Saddam Hussein’s palace and the life-changing treatment for his MS available only in Iraq.
THE WORD OF GOD My first career was in medicine. I worked as an operating department practitioner and then specialised in anaesthetics – so I can put people to sleep with sermons or drugs. Later I ran the cardiac arrest team at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. One day, while praying in the hospital garden, overlooking the River Thames, I thanked God for the opportunity to work at the hospital and for everything I had achieved. And then I asked God, “What shall I do next?” I thought he would say I should stay at the hospital forever, but instead I got this profound sense I was being called into the Church. I didn’t want to do it. I objected and fought

it for half an hour. And then I gave in.



JOY OF JUDAISM I went to Cambridge University to study Christian theology, but I found it boring, so I switched focus to Judaism. I consider myself a Christian with Jewish leanings. I got very involved in the university’s Jewish Society and became an active member of an orthodox synagogue. For my doctoral research, I went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was shocked to discover a lot of the people there were woolly liberals who didn’t really believe in anything.

SENT TO COVENTRY I was ordained at Southwark Cathedral and worked in London for a few years. Then I moved to Coventry Cathedral and became director of the International Centre for Reconciliation. One of the first things I learned were the words of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He said, “Who is my enemy? It is the person whose story I have not heard.” A lot of my work involves trying to develop a forum for bringing enemies together, to hear the story of the other side. I did a lot of work in Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas. I wasn’t just friends with the Jewish community – one of my closest friends was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. I started off hating him, but ended up working closely with him. I helped to formulate the Alexandria Declaration, a peace treaty between Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders in Israel and Palestine. That project raised my profile and was the foundation of all my subsequent work in reconciliation.

Andrew White in Baghdad with churchgoers.

I also worked in Kaduna, in Nigeria, where Christian and Muslim communities were fighting. We took the Alexandria Declaration and Kaduna-ised it by translating it into the Nigerian language and setting. It was successful for a while, but then Boko Haram turned up and things are now worse than they’ve ever been.

SPOOKS AND TERRORISTS I started visiting Iraq in 1998. I thought it would take about three days to get people talking to each other, but it took over a year. When the war started in 2003, I moved there to live. I reopened Baghdad’s only Anglican Church, St George’s. At first, the congregation consisted of expats, then the intelligence brigade and lots of spies started coming to Sunday services. But the church was outside the Green Zone and, as Baghdad started becoming more violent, they stopped coming. When the spooks stopped attending, the Iraqi Christians started. One week, 100 people came, the next week 200, the following week 300. It wasn’t long before we had a congregation of 6,500. These people didn’t have much to eat, so we developed a food-relief programme, a clinic and a school. I was also chaplain at the United States embassy, which was situated in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace. The throne room became the chapel and Saddam’s throne became the chaplain’s seat. I usually sit down when I preach because I have multiple sclerosis, so I can’t stand for long. The throne was the best chair I’ve ever had – it was really comfortable.

Andrew White on Saddam’s golden throne.

From 2006, the violence increased and a lot of the congregation fled. In 2014, the situation worsened further when Isis started seizing control. Isis is made up of people who have lost everything – jobs, money, control. My theory is that all terrorists are people who have lost power and are trying to show they still have it by blowing people up. There have been times when I have felt devastated by the killing of my friends and members of our community, but I have always been aware of the presence of the glory of God and that has enabled me to keep going. I have never doubted my faith. I am very odd like that – I don’t know anyone else who has not doubted. Loving my enemies is something I take very seriously.

JOURNEY TO JORDAN In response to threats from Islamic State, the Archbishop of Canterbury – who was once my assistant and is now my boss – said, “Andrew, you are more use to us alive than dead.” He told me to leave Iraq. I visit England regularly, to see my wife and sons, but I can’t conceive of ever living there again. I now spend most of my time between Jordan and Jerusalem.

In Jordan there is a large community of Iraqi refugees. They live in awful, terrible shacks, with black mould growing on the walls, so we help with rent. We also provide food, a school and a clinic, and transport to both. What I’d like to do next is build a reconciliation centre near the Jordan River in Israel. There are seven churches in the area and it’s where I do most of my baptisms. The land is riddled with land mines dating from the six-day war (in 1967). I’m involved in a de-mining project and, once that’s completed, it would be fitting to build a centre for peace in this place that has seen so much death and destruction.

Books by Andrew White.

FINDING A CURE I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 33, the same year I started working in Baghdad. It used to affect me badly – to the point that I could hardly speak or see. A friend who is a haematologist in Baghdad said, “Andrew, I need to make you better. I’ve googled it and what you need is stem-cell treatment.” I wouldn’t have accepted stem cells from an aborted fetus for ethical reasons, but he suggested taking stem cells from my own blood and injecting them into my spine and neck. I said, “That sounds good, have you done it before?” He said, “No. Let’s start tomorrow.” He did it, and I was literally transformed from that day.

I need to go back to Baghdad to receive the treatment every three months. The machine that does the stem-cell removal is there and the procedure isn’t available in any other country. Unfortunately, there are no visas being issued for anyone to go to Baghdad at the moment. At this point I haven’t had the treatment for 10 months. I’m OK, but I need it soon.

Andrew White was in Hong Kong to give a talk on “radical peace” at the University of Hong Kong.