“It’s the end for Iraqi Christians,” writes Josh Glancy in The Sunday Times, as he recounts the appalling horrors, heartbreaks and sheer despair of Iraq’s Christians, many thousands of whom are homeless, destitute and traumatised, and many hundreds of whom have had their hands held and tears wiped away by Canon Andrew White, the acclaimed ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, who, sadly, ministers in Baghdad no longer.
He has been ordered home by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When there’s a $57m (£36m) bounty on your head (quite literally), it becomes a little too dangerous to expound the scriptures every Sunday if the demonic hordes know exactly which pulpit you’ll be preaching from, at what time, and approximately for how long. With assets of £5.2bn, a few million quid wouldn’t be much missed from church coffers. But the Government intends to shed light on the grey areas and close all insurance loopholes relating to the payment of ransoms, in order to cut a primary source of terrorist funding. So the Vicar of Baghdad is back in England, at least for the moment, for Health & Safety reasons.
He has no fear of ISIS personally, and has said so many times. He knows that at an appointed time he will go to be with the Lord in eternity, and that the jihadis can destroy nothing but his body, which is already ravaged and weary with Multiple Sclerosis. His witness throughout his own suffering has been manifest; his courage consistent; his sacrifice of love profound. His love of Jesus radiates like laser of light in a world of darkness and shadows. “I’ve been shot at and bombed and they’ve tried to blow me up,” he says. “People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid where you are?’ Never, not one day; I love it. I feel really sad that I’m not there now.”
To leave the land to which God has called you to do His work must be bruising. To give up the mission He had you build is bewildering. To abandon the people you love – those with whom you eat, sleep, laugh and weep – must be a cause of deep pain, loss and distress. But the order came from his old friend, now boss, Justin Welby, and Canon White obeyed. “Did he agree with the decision?” Glancy asks:
He hesitates. “It was the right decision. Did I like it? No.” White clearly needed some persuading. In the end it was not the danger to himself that convinced him to go, but the danger he was posing to the people around him.
The Vicar of Baghdad is renowned all over the world, you see. Canon Andrew White traverses national borders and flies across continents to speak about the end of Christianity in the Middle East and his work of reconciliation and healing. His message is of the immanent apocalypse; his prophecy is eschatological. His fame makes him a magnet for ISIS: his head is worth millions more than an unknown taxi driver or charity worker. Imagine the drip, drip, splash of soul-destructive headlines: ‘Welby woos women bishops while Canon White wallows in grief’; ‘Anglicans dwell on doctrinal divisions while Andrew White pleads for his life’; ‘Church of England debates gay marriage while Canon White is tortured’; ‘Vicar of Baghdad beheaded by Jihadi John: he died singing Amazing Grace’.
Sure, the news cycle would soon move on to another photo of Ed Miliband eating a humous bagette or donating 43p to a prostitute. The national mourning wouldn’t last long, just as it hasn’t for David Haines or Alan Henning. But no prayer floating up to heaven on any wing would easily repair the reputational damage. The wound would bleed for a year. Respect for the Archbishop of Canterbury would dissipate; reverence for the Church of England would fade away. You could kiss goodbye to hopes of spiritual renewal and visionary monkish communities based at Lambeth Palace: what sort of ‘Religious Life’ chants Taizé choruses while a living saint is slaughtered?
“Bring me the head of the Vicar of Baghdad,” demands Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State. And there it is, served up on a silver platter via TwitPic: a hero of the Faith martyred for want of 0.7% of the CofE’s total securities, bonds and shares. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But we must go on thinking, praying and doing all we can to help those of our brothers and sisters who remain. The statistics have been reeled off so frequently there is almost a quantitative blindness to the scale of the passion. “In 1991 there were 1.5m Christians in Iraq. Today there may be as few as 300,000. In Syria and Egypt, in places where there have been churches for almost two millennia, Christians are being persecuted and killed and their places of worship destroyed,” Glancy reminds us.
Has the West done enough to prevent the destruction of an ancient civilisation, the cradle of its own faith? No. “They haven’t really, have they? They haven’t taken seriously the destruction of the community. I’ve always said, ‘These are our people. We are Christians. And so are they.’”
White compares the current crisis to the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948, which all but ended Jewish life across much of the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left their ancient communities, where they were no longer welcome because of the hatred directed towards the Jewish state.
And how is the Vicar of Baghdad finding life in England?
“People here are not waking up and listening to the reality of what is going on. It is a life-and-death situation, and it is the life and death of our people. Here we are sitting in green country England where many people go to church on Sunday. But it’s a different world. Their biggest question is: ‘Should I have fish or chicken for lunch?’ ”
Quite. Like Justin Welby, Andrew White has been kidnapped and held at gunpoint. They said their prayers, phoned their loved ones and prepared their souls for death. They both must have thought many times “What if..?”. Is their mission foolhardy? Are their efforts wise and discerning or harebrained? Is their vocation of God?
Having been imprisoned in a room “with lots of cut-off fingers and toes”, Canon Andrew White must keep his head and maintain his voice. Not because he believes his life to be worth more than any of those who remain in Iraq. But because he reminds us prophetically that we are called to be crucified every day with Christ and to share in the suffering of others. They are our severed fingers and toes that are strewn across the floor. It is our agony and grief you can hear in the desert sands. And it is our weeping, wailing and mourning that echoes throughout the entire Middle East.