The Vicar of Baghdad has gone the extra mile to deal with Islamist terrorism in Iraq. He even invited ISIS terrorists to dinner, despite their putting a $157 million bounty on his head.
He has been willing to talk with some of the worst villains in the world, but he has to admit his fearless effort to deal with the Islamic State constructively has been a bust, and “there should be war” to stop them.
He really hates to put it that way. “It is a terrible thing to say as a priest,” he told the UK Independent this weekend.
The vicar in question is the irrepressible Andrew White, whose approach to peacemaking and spreading his faith looks like a mixture of stand-up comedy and early Jackie Chan stunt work. Beneath his humor lies an astounding confidence in faith and the power of peacemaking. He has walked the walk, and it has taken him through the valley of death, where he feared no evil.
“For the last two decades, he has worked as a mediator in some of the deadliest disputes on Earth, in Israel and Palestine, Iraq and Nigeria. He has sat down to eat with terrorists, extremists, warlords and the sons of Saddam Hussein, with presidents and prime ministers,” the Independent writes of his exploits. “White has been shot at and kidnapped, and was once held captive in a room littered with other people’s severed fingers and toes, until he talked his way out of it.”
He did all this while battling the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, which slurs his speech enough to occasionally make radio listeners believe he is drunk. He kept his St. George’s church running through both the post-Saddam purge of Christians from Iraq, and the rise of ISIS, events which cut the Christian population from about 1.5 million to less than 260,000. He would not leave Baghdad until the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered him to go, and while he is currently touring Britain and regards Jordan as his home, he implied he might be slipping back into Baghdad now and then. He ministers to a number of Christian refugees from Iraq in Jordan, and said he was anxious to return to that mission.
“We had ISIS on the doorstep of Baghdad last year,” White recalled. “I said to my people, ‘I will not leave you; don’t leave me.’ But many did leave me and they went to Nineveh and Mosul. ISIS were there too. There was total mayhem.”
White maintains a sense of humor about the Islamic State’s threats against his own person, but he cannot abide what they have done to others.
“I invited the leaders of Isis [Islamic State] for dinner,” he tells The Independent. “I am a great believer in that… ISIS said, ‘You can invite us to dinner, but we’ll chop your head off.’ So I didn’t invite them again!”
“Can I be honest? You are absolutely right,” he said, when it was suggested that negotiations with ISIS will never work. “You can’t negotiate with them. I have never said that about another group of people. These are really so different, so extreme, so radical, so evil.”
White said it was important to keep lines of communication open with other Sunni leaders, but as for ISIS, he reluctantly concluded war was the only answer.
“The only answer is to radically destroy them. I don’t think we can do it by dropping bombs. We have got to bring about real change. It is a terrible thing to say as a priest,” he confessed. “It really hurts. I have tried so hard. I will do anything to save life and bring about tranquillity, and here I am forced by death and destruction to say there should be war.”
When White returned to this topic in an interview with Christian Today, he clarified what he meant by saying ISIS could not be defeated by dropping bombs. He was not making a final, reflexive attempt to say their ideology could not be destroyed with violence. He was saying the UK should send in ground troops to defeat them.
“There is one way to overcome ISIS. It is not bombing from the sky. We need troops on the ground to bring about a change. They are so evil, so terrible. They have done terrible things to the Christian community,” White declared.
White encouraged the UK to do more for Christian refugees from the Middle East:
We have said we will take 20,000 Syrian refugees but how many are Christian? If we just take in refugees from the camps we won’t take any Christians. I am not against Muslims coming in. It is not just Christians who need help and care, Muslims need help as well. I feel passionately about my Muslim friends. But we cannot sideline the Christians, and that is what we are doing.
“The big question is, will there be Christians in the Middle East in five years,” White mused. “Christianity will probably survive. It has been through so much. But this is the hardest thing it has been through.”
White has authored several books about his experiences. He is currently touring in support of his most recent work, entitled My Journey So Far.