Vicar of Baghdad tells Norwich of his love of God
Canon Andrew White, a former doctor and well-known Middle East peace envoy, known as the “Vicar of Baghdad”, who has faced numerous kidnap and death threats, told a Norwich audience that it was “the love of God and love for people that drives me on.” Mike Wiltshire reports.
Despite a long battle with multiple sclerosis, a condition that affects his mobility and speech, Andrew White’s optimistic humour in the face of suffering has endeared him to audiences around the world.
He and co-workers have set up schools, clinics, food centres and homes in the Middle East for children and families who have fled persecution. Most of the support comes from the UK. “I never dreamed I would be doing this – but it’s an incredible gift from the Almighty,” he says.
Many of the people he supports are Assyrian Christians of Iraq who have fled to Jordan after murderous attacks by ISIS terrorists. The Assyrians from the Nineveh region are descended from one of the oldest civilisations in the world. He also points out that millions of Jews lived in Iraq over 2,600 years – “today there are only six left.”
To many Iraqis, Andrew White is affectionately known as Abuna (father) Andrew. Five years before the Iraq war he, along with Justin Welby – who later became Archbishop of Canterbury – re-opened the bomb-damaged St George’s Church, the only Anglican church in Iraq. Attendance grew rapidly to 6,500 people and Andrew was nicknamed “the Vicar of Baghdad”. It was “a wonderful church,” he says.
But as life in Iraq became more violent, Andrew frequently found himself with body guards and an armoured vehicle to make his parish rounds. Many of his congregation were martyred for their faith, and Andrew has faced numerous death threats. Eventually, he was asked to leave Iraq for security reasons. “Archbishop Justin said ‘you’re more useful to us alive than dead’.”
In an earlier life as a doctor, Andrew had trained in London at St Thomas’ Hospital, where he specialised in anaesthetics and was in charge of the cardiac arrest team. He loved his medical work. One evening, after a personal time of thanksgiving, he asked, “What next, Lord?” Surprisingly, he felt an immediate call to the Anglican ministry.
“So I went to ‘vicar factory’ in Cambridge,” says Andrew, with a smile. He also studied Judaism and Islam, and attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At 33, after various ministry appointments, he became the youngest canon in the Church of England. While at Coventry Cathedral he was director of the International Centre for Reconciliation and was later appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East.
Winner of more than 20 peace and inter-faith awards and author of seven books, he now leads ‘Canon Andrew White Ministries and Jerusalem Merit’. “Reconciliation work starts with relationship building,” says Andrew, who is trusted by many religious and political leaders in the Middle East. He has built unparalleled relationships with senior Sunni and Shia clerics and says “the vast majority of Muslims are our friends.”
He has negotiated in many hostage situations and has often faced kidnap and personal danger. Once, while trying to save a kidnapped Brazilian, he was held in a darkened room littered with victims’ chopped-off fingers and toes. “People ask me if I am afraid to be in danger zones, but doesn’t the Bible tell us that ‘perfect love casts out fear?’ ”
One of Andrew’s favourite quotes is “Don’t take care - take risks!” His Christian father told him at the age of three that Jesus loved him – and Andrew says he “has never doubted that truth.” He often tells audiences: “The love of Jesus is as real for you as it is for me.”
At one stage he wanted to visit Iraq, but Saddam Hussain’s government refused to let him in. Then, after praying about it, he was amazed to receive a fax message the next day from the office of Tariq Aziz, deputy prime minister and close advisor to president Hussain. It read: “He wants to see you in his office in Baghdad next Thursday at 5pm.”
“Miraculously, I got there, after a 16-hour drive from Amman in Jordan to Baghdad,” recalls Andrew. He met many of the ‘bad guys’ including the infamous sons of Saddam: Uday, the psychopathic playboy, and Qusay, the ruthless heir apparent. This was one dinner appointment he did not want to keep – and only went because the terrified messenger said with tears that he and his family would be killed if Andrew refused the invitation.
Andrew and his wife, Caroline, have two sons. The family live in Hampshire, but cannot follow Andrew on his many trips which have taken him recently to the Middle East, Switzerland, America and New Zealand.
A big man at six feet two inches tall with size 16 shoes, Andrew now often has to speak from a wheelchair and is undergoing stem cell treatment for MS, first developed at his clinic in Baghdad, which uses his body's own stem cells - "It has completely transformed my life,” he says. “Well over 3,000 other patients have been treated with it, but I was the first.”
Canon Andrew White was speaking in Norwich at a series of inspirational meetings which were arranged by FGB, the Full Gospel Businessmen.
Pictured above is Canon Andrew White speaking at an FGB meeting in Norwich recently.
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