He is one of the world’s most prominent priests, but Canon Andrew White – known as the “Vicar of Baghdad” – has reached a painstaking conclusion: Christianity is all but over in the land where it all began.
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“The time has come where it is over, no Christians will be left. Some stay Christians should stay to maintain the historical presence, but it has become very difficult. The future for the community is very limited,” White told Fox News this week. “The Christians coming out of Iraq and ISIS areas in the Middle East all say the same thing, there is no way they are ever going back. They have had enough.”
Thirty years ago, there were approximately 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. The number dwindled to around 1 million after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and a year ago it was estimated that there were less than 250,000 left. Numbers have continued to decline as families flee, and today even approximate figures are difficult to obtain.
“If there is anything I can tell Americans it is that your fellow brothers and sisters are suffering, they are desperate for help,” he said. “And it is not just a matter of praying for peace. They need a lot – food, resources, clothes, everything. They need everything.”
For decades, Christians endured persecution in Iraq by hardline extremists as infidel “people of the book” – but their fate became significantly more dire in 2014 after ISIS overran Mosul and the many ancient Christian villages surrounding the city. Thousands of families overnight were forced to flee their home, and while some have sought refuge in the northern Kurdish region, many have left the country altogether.
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White earned his moniker serving as the vicar of St. George’s Church, Baghdad – the only remaining Anglican Church in the Iraqi capital – until November, 2014 when he was ordered by the Archbishop of Canterbury to leave for security’s sake as the ISIS threat burgeoned.
Much of ministry over the years centered on humanitarian endeavors – yet his do-good desires have come with controversy.
Last June, White came under criticism and was suspended by the board of trustees as president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation (FRRME), the charity he founded in 2005 to bridge sectarian divisions and provide emergency relief to those affected by war. The suspension came after he made a Facebook post about freeing Yazidi sex slaves from ISIS, raising questions as to how that was achieved and if the terrorists were paid off.
The post also prompted an investigation of the foundation by the Charity Commission, the official charity regulator in England. As a registered UK charity, the organization is not permitted to engage in hostage release negotiations and it is against the law to pay ransoms to designated terrorist groups.
Nothing has come of the enquiry and White denied any wrongdoing – publicly assuring that “at no time did we pay money to any terrorists.” He has not let the controversy stop him from continuing to help those fleeing ISIS atrocities in the Middle East. He has since founded two new organizations, the Canon Andrew White Reconciliation Ministries in Amman, Jordan and “Jerusalem Merit” in Israel.
White’s ministry work in the Jordanian capital includes running a school and clinic for refugees and serving as a pastor to Christian families that have fled ISIS persecution. In Jerusalem, he is focused on relief and reconciliation amid the long-running Israel/Palestine conflict and he works directly with an array of religious groups, from Hasidic Jews and Samaritans to Christians and Muslims.
White has also been a vocal supporter of the new U.S. president. He praised Trump’s commitment to helping “persecuted Christians” and for modifying his original travel ban to ensure Iraqis can still travel to the U.S. – viewing that as acknowledgment that the two countries maintain positive ties. However, he hopes to foster dialogue with the administration and offer some suggestions to dealing with the Islamic community.
“Many have this feeling that America is against them, and they need to show that America is not against Islam, America is against terrorism,” White said, adding that by no means is he “one of those people who thinks Islam is all about peace.” “We have got to have good relations, and the U.S is in a unique and powerful position to be a force for good.”
Beyond humanitarian efforts, the central tenet of White’s work has for years been devoted to cultivating communications between Shia and Sunni leaders – and even ISIS jihadists themselves – in Iraq. Despite the constant terrorist threat, he continues to travel to Baghdad to continue his work in anti-extremism dialogue and to undergo stem cell treatment for Multiple Sclerosis, a diagnosis he received at age 33.
“A lot of these guys I have known before they were ISIS, when they were part of militias like ‘Sons of Iraq,’” he said. “They operate in secret cells all over Baghdad, and the harder the Iraqi Army attacks Mosul, the more they attack Baghdad.”
And, White stressed, there simply isn’t a “safe” way to work with them.
“It is important to find ways to engage with them, to look into their philosophies. I tried to invite some of the ISIS jihadists to dinner once,” he added. “They told me they would come, but that they would chop my head off afterwards. I didn’t think it would be a nice way to end a dinner party.”