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The Vicar of Baghdad visits Charleston from the heart of Iraq

By the Rivers of Babylon

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When word of the 9/11 attacks reached Baghdad, an Iraqi friend turned to Canon Andrew White and pleaded, "Tell them we had nothing to do with it."

"It doesn't matter," White replied. "They're still coming to get you."

To many Iraqis, Canon White is the one Westerner they can trust. The British minister's parish, St. George's Baghdad, is the only Anglican church remaining in Iraq, a country where only three percent of citizens claim to be Christians.

The Western world's predominant religion will always have a place in Iraq though, White said in an hour-long presentation last week at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. He pointed out that present day Iraq is at the crux of Biblical lore, from Abraham to Jonah. The Garden of Eden was in Iraq, and closing chapters of Revelations make reference to Babylon.

Before returning to Baghdad, White also met with members of President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy advisory committee in Washington, D.C. In addition to serving as minister to 2,000 parishioners at St. George's, White is also the founder and president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), the director of the U.S. Department of Defense's Religious Sectarian project, and a primary hostage negotiator during kidnapping crises.

"Andrew is a priest on Saturday and Sunday, and a diplomat Monday through Friday," says St. Michael's rector, the Rev. Al Zadig. "He has that unique kind of a role."

Zadig was the rector of a church in Washington when a friend working in Iraq told him about the Canon's thriving church in Baghdad. When White testified before U.S. Congress later that year about the situation in Iraq, Zadig met him and established a relationship between their parishes.

"Obviously, we can't send people over there, because you can't get into Baghdad without a Pentagon pass," says Zadig, adding that he hopes to establish a sister-church program between St. Michael's and St. George's. "It fits everything we're trying to do — to help out in a very 'un-church' part of the world."

Adding another element to his story, Canon White was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over a decade ago, evident in his slightly slurred speech. Any suffering he feels is masked by enthusiasm and charisma when he speaks.

"They told me I was too ill to work in England, so I went to Baghdad," said White. "I know it's very dangerous, but the fact of the matter is, I don't really care about my own life very much."

Over the course of a decade in the Middle East, White's witnessed his share of hardship. He's been held at gunpoint and kidnapped. Eleven of his staff members were killed in one year, and 93 parishioners have died in 2008 alone. One morning he arrived at church to find 60 bodies strung from the lamp posts around it. Despite that, the sanctuary was filled to overflowing when services began later that day.

"I lay in bed at night thinking of my people," said White, whose wife and two children remain in England while he lives and works in Iraq. To get to work at St. George's, just outside the fortified Green Zone's walls, 35 armed guards escort him from the trailer where he lives. He's unable to walk down the street, and his parishioners risk murder for being Christians. Still, says White, it's the most wonderful church in the world.

In addition to ministry, St. George's offers free medical care to anyone in need, regardless of religion. Many Iraqi soldiers utilize the service, and it's escalated the church's monthly expenses from $500 a few years ago to $66,000.

"It's not just worship. We help with rent, food, clothes, health care, medicines," White said. "Most of our patients are Muslim — over 90 percent. They come to church to be treated. It's totally free."

Those services are largely funded by private donations from abroad. White's ability to break through traditional religious and societal barriers has helped him earn an international reputation as the "Vicar of Baghdad." As a white, British Anglican serving an Iraqi congregation, he takes a huge and unique risk that many ministers would politely decline.

Identifying himself as a Shiite-Christian, White leads monthly meetings in Beirut, Lebanon, between Iraq's leading Shiite and Sunni leaders. After years of those efforts, he facilitated the signing of a "fatwa" denouncing all terrorism this fall. Leaders of both Muslim sects have previously denounced suicide bombings, but both sides held that terrorism as resistance was tolerable. The latest agreement denounces all violence, an unprecedented pact in modern day Iraq.

In negotiating the release of hostages, White has about a 25 percent success rate. As depressing as that might be, it's considered successful. His British guards were kidnapped a year and a half ago and are still being held.

"I really want to get them back by Christmas," a pained White told the audience at St. Michael's. "Please pray that we can get them released."

Although White worked to oppose American sanctions against Iraq prior to the war, he says that neither sanctions nor the Iraqi people could have deposed Saddam Hussein. He has supported the U.S. invasion and occupation and says that America cannot leave.

"I am really, seriously, pro-American. I think everybody here should be so proud," said White. "I'm meeting Obama's people tomorrow, and I will tell them very frankly what will happen if they leave. There will be civil war. Britain has quite a history of taking over other countries, and we realize that you just can't leave them."

But by next June, the U.K. plans to have pulled their troops out of Iraq. At a current taxpayer cost of $12 billion a month for the occupation and citizen support waning, the U.S. may soon be forced to follow suit.

For more on Canon Andrew White's unique inside perspective on Iraqi conflict, visit his organization's website, www.frrme.org.

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