Loving Muslims One at a Time
Andrew White was in the thick of matters in Iraq long before September 11. In 1998, at age 33, he was appointed a canon at Coventry Cathedral, England, as director of international ministry and head of the International Centre for Reconciliation. The center promotes reconciliation (mainly religious) across the globe, and White concentrated his efforts on the Middle East, mediating many kidnapping and hostage disputes, and helping Shia and Sunni leaders trust one another.
In 2005, White became the vicar of St. George's Church just outside the Green Zone in Baghdad. He has been dubbed the Vicar of Baghdad, because St. George's is the only Anglican church left in Iraq. White has received a number of humanitarian awards, the latest being the 2011 International First Freedom Award, which has also been awarded to such people as Tony Blair.
CT senior managing editor Mark Galli recently spoke with White via Skype.
Where were you on September 11, 2001? What were you doing?
I was sitting in my office in Coventry Cathedral, packing my bags to go to Baghdad the next day. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I arrived in Baghdad a week later. I walked into the office of [then Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz. He said, "Andrew, tell them we had nothing to do with it." I didn't think what I was saying, but I shouted at him, "It doesn't matter whether you did or not! They are still all coming to get you." And they did.
The day before 9/11, what were your greatest fears and hopes for Christian-Muslim relations in Iraq?
As early as 1998, I was saying that the biggest problem was not going to be the Eastern European or Communist countries but the Islamic world. I believed we needed to keep engaged with the Islamic world. I was very aware of the problem—the way the Islamic world communicated with the West. I knew things were getting worse. I knew there was going to be a catastrophe. Then 9/11 happened. And 9/11 wasn't just a tragedy; it was a major changing point in history.
What are the biggest changes you have seen since 9/11?
The biggest change is that we now have a public conflict between Islam and Christianity, and religion has gone very wrong. And when religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Christianity went very wrong at the time of the Crusades and, not least, the time of the Holocaust; the Holocaust was not an act of Christianity, but it took place in the middle of the Christian continent, and most people said nothing.
Today, Islam sees the Western world as the Christian world. Its adherents don't separate between the state and the masses. They see us as one. The West is predominantly Christian. Its ethics is not pure; the morality of many people is terrible. And they see that all as Christianity.
When you say that religion has gone terribly wrong, does that still include Christianity?
No, the Christian religion is not as dangerous as it used to be. But when you are on the ground in places like we are, the liberals can do nothing. You have to be very orthodox in your faith.
Islamic leaders are very orthodox, and they want to know that you are serious about your faith as well. The fact that I am orthodox in my faith means that I can get a lot further with Islamic leaders. I believe in God; I believe what the Bible says; I believe everything I'm supposed to as an orthodox Christian. And the fact that I don't drink and I practice my faith is what they are trying to see.
What has been the biggest surprise in your work since 9/11?
That much of the world still does not realize that we are dealing with a major religious battle.