News in the Middle East is rarely uplifting. On a daily basis, a roiling brew of fanaticism, insurgency and hatred boils over into country after country, yielding death and destruction.
In a region beset with such turmoil, it is highly unusual to come across someone who rises above the fray and – without a trace of cynicism – offers a message of hope. Thankfully, just such a voice was heard in Jerusalem this past weekend.
Reverend Canon Andrew White is an Anglican priest from Great Britain who is affectionately known as the “Vicar of Baghdad.” A large silver cross graces his chest; he walks with a cane and speaks with a faint impediment because of his personal battle with multiple sclerosis.
In 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, White reopened St. George’s Church in Baghdad. Today, he divides his time in several ways.
He tends to the needs of the people in his war-torn parish, distributing food and medical care to both Christians and Muslims.
He travels across wide swaths of North America and Britain, seeking to raise awareness and funds.
He also tries to bring together Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders in his never-ending quest to restrain religiously incited violence.
White’s indefatigable efforts entail his own medical issues, and they are acted out against an increasingly bloodstained backdrop.
Wednesday morning, Al-Arabiya’s headlines proclaimed that three separate bombs had ripped into the heart of Baghdad. Dozens were injured and more than 20 were killed.
Last month alone, 1,013 people in Iraq – 795 civilians, 122 soldiers and 96 policemen – died as a result of violence.
As Canon White spoke at Jerusalem’s Narkis Congregation on Saturday morning, he lamented that 1,096 of his own parishioners have been killed in the past five years.
Yet despite these horrific statistics, St. George’s continues to provide food and clothing for the neighborhood, and it maintains a clinic offering medical and dental help. And the church’s numbers have not diminished. Even some 600 Muslim women worship there (White makes a point of saying that he does not seek to convert them). Somehow, the church is holding its own.
But the same cannot be said for Iraq’s greater Christian community. Christians are vanishing, going the way of the Jews before them.
There were once 135,000 Jews in Iraq; according to White, only six remain.
And Iraq’s Christians have fled by the hundreds of thousands in recent years. Out of 1.5 million in 2003, only around 200,000 remain. “There are more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than in Iraq,” White said. “Chicago, Detroit and Sweden. That’s where you’ll find Iraq’s Christians today.”
This is particularly tragic, because both the Jewish and Christian communities in Iraq are ancient and indigenous. They are neither post-colonial nor the result of Western missionary activity.
In fact, Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest in the world, dating to the first century. An early tradition says it was founded by St. Thomas – “Doubting Thomas,” one of Jesus’ 12 disciples – and others who shared his faith. Many churches still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., writes, “American leadership has responded to the plight of Iraq’s Christians as if they are an inconvenient fact that gets in the way of ‘real’ American interests. In fact, Iraq’s Christian presence is critically important to its peace, democracy, and prosperity. The Christians are a segment of that population that is politically moderate, educated, skilled and well represented in the professions. Furthermore, without them, Iraq loses its religious diversity and its experience of coexistence with the religious ‘other.' Drained of this segment of its population, Iraq’s ability to succeed as a nation in any modern understanding of the term will be that much more difficult.”
The Christians who remain in Iraq today face constant danger; they risk being targeted for their faith or caught in others’ crossfire or suicide bombings. Many of them are penniless, and even if they could afford to flee, no safe haven awaits them; there is no Israel for Christians.
Feeding them, clothing them and treating their medical needs is the never-ending work of St. George’s Church.
Meanwhile, Canon White persists in alerting the West to Iraq’s diminishing Christian presence. In doing so, he embodies the remaining believers’ vulnerability and teaches us to weep with those who weep.
Such is the vocation of the indomitable Vicar of Baghdad.
Praying for him will strengthen his hands and honor his faithfulness.
And finding practical ways to inspire and encourage the remaining Christian believers in Iraq will let them know that they are surely not forgotten.
Lela Gilbert is author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians." She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.