SEATTLE – More than 1,200 people who once worshipped with him have been killed in recent years, including four boys who were beheaded because they refused to convert to Islam.
Now in exile from his Baghdad congregation, the England-born vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, is focused on caring for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have fled a relentless ISIS army that has brutally carved out an Islamic-law governed “caliphate” in large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
WND caught up with White after a speaking engagement in the Pacific Northwest and asked him to weigh in on the fierce debate in the U.S. over whether or not to allow in Syrian refugees at the risk of enabling the infiltration of terrorists.
As a Christian – particularly one who has been kidnapped by jihadists and has an ISIS bounty on his head – he was asked how the biblical call to care for outcasts should be reconciled with the responsibility to protect loved ones.
“I think our first priority as Christians is to care for our family: We have to care for the Christians,” he said. “And what America is very bad at doing is understanding the needs of persecuted Christians.
“I don’t mean we should just protect and support the Christians,” he clarified. “But we should primarily help them.”
White, a priest in the Church of England, took over St. George’s Church in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and saw it grow to 6,500 worshippers.
But in Iraq, where 1.5 million Christians once live, he said, only about 260,000 are left.
The U.S. State Department largely has refused, nevertheless, to resettle Christians fleeing persecution in Syria and Iraq, adhering to bureaucratic rules that require the persecution to have been carried out by a nation state.
In the interview with WND, White, 51, continued making a case for the U.S. to accept persecuted Christians.
“America is supposedly a Christian community,” he said. “And I know that you say there is separation of church and state. But there isn’t really. There is more connection between church and state here than in England, where all the bishops sit in the houses of Parliament.”
“Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea, shows through vivid accounts the threats Christians face not only in the Middle East but all around the world
White – whose speech and gait, but not his determination, have been slowed by multiple sclerosis – noted that on six occasions he has opened a session of the U.S. Senate in prayer.
“So, it’s not really separated,” he said of church and state. “You’ve got to provide for the needs of those who are despised and rejected and those who are forgotten.”
Two Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said Sunday the U.S. should focus on taking in Christian refugees rather than Muslims. More than half of U.S. governors have declared they won’t take in any more Syrian refugees, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, until their security concerns are addressed.
Obama, at the G-20 Summit in Turkey, responded Monday with a rebuke, declaring, “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.”
No negotiating with ISIS
White believes Syrian Muslims, with proper vetting, should also be allowed to resettle in the U.S., but he acknowledged the problem of investigating the backgrounds of people who come from a world of chaos. And a Syrian community leader in New York City told the New York Post Wednesday that it’s routine in Syria, through bribery, to obtain official government documents bearing a false identity.
“There isn’t an easy answer or an easy solution. It’s really difficult,” White said. “But we must be prepared to welcome the other, even though it involves risks.
“There is no way of doing it with complete safety. Those days have gone. Long gone,” he said. “Those days finished publicly on 9/11.”
White is known for his leadership in reconciliation efforts in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians, but he insists there can be no negotiating with ISIS.
He said ISIS, which he describes as “evil,” has put a price of 100 million British pounds, about $157 million, on his head.
Last year, nevertheless, as ISIS threatened Baghdad, White said he invited an ISIS commander and his colleagues to dinner.
The commander said, according to White, “We will come, but we will warn you. We will chop your head off as well.”
“So,” White recalled, employing his droll humor, “I didn’t push it any further. I said, ‘OK, don’t worry. Bye.'”
Many of his church members fled north to Mosul, the ancient city of Ninevah, where ISIS eventually took control, scattering the 2,000-year-old Christian population.
White said he wanted to stay in Baghdad, but he was ordered to leave by the archbishop of Canterbury in November 2014.
He now focuses on pastoring and providing for the physical and educational needs of the Iraqi refugee community, mostly in Jordan, through his charity, Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
White believes troops on the ground are necessary to defeat ISIS, but he contends reconciliation work must be part of the long-term solution.
In Iraq, the George W. Bush administration financially supported his effort to bring together Sunni and Shiite leaders, he said, but the day Bush left office, the support stopped.
But it was the removal of coalition forces that marked the turning point, he said.
“We had incredible success in really managing to move forward, and we had incredible failure after the removal of the coalition from Iraq,” White said.
“Iraq was not ready to stand on its own feet. We went in, and we left before we were ready,” he said.
White, who had been in Iraq since 1998, said he originally was in favor of the war, which led to the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein.
“I saw how evil the regime was under Saddam,” he told WND. “I said we had to go in and do something radical.”
But his view has drastically changed.
“I was totally and utterly wrong,” he said. “As I looked at what happened, it was a disaster.
“But one of the big problems was that we didn’t see things through to the end. We just did it. We went in, we got them and we didn’t see towards a solution,” White said.
The work of Jesus
So, what should be done now in Iraq, along with defeating ISIS?
“We should seriously start engaging in the process of reconciliation and reconstruction,” he said. “We can’t just stand back and say there’s nothing we can do. We have been doing things for years. We’ve got to enforce those things to fruition. There are very few people there. There’s almost nobody apart from our organization who can do it.”
White believes his ministry of reconciliation arises from his call as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he is against any effort that melds Christianity and Islam.
“I’m radical. I’m totally of the belief that the way of salvation is through Jesus only. Come what may,” he said. “The Muslims are totally of the belief that salvation is only by the root of Islam and the ‘final prophet,” Muhammad. We totally agree to disagree.”
However, he said, Christians and Muslims in the Middle East “can still work with each other, respect each other and work for reconciliation without accepting the doctrine of each other.”
“We’re not about Christian-Islam, or Christian-Islamization. That is not what I stand for,” he emphasized. “I am totally against that.”
He believes the reconciliation work is part of fulfilling “the Great Commission” of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations.”
“The only way we can take the Gospel to the Islamic world is by loving them,” he said.
“It’s not about standing on the street corner preaching,” said White. “It’s by getting beside them. Standing beside them.”
While affirming the importance of preaching and declaring the Gospel, he said many have come to faith in Christ without ever hearing a sermon.
“But we have loved them. And they have been drawn to Jesus,” he said.
“So Jesus does all the work. Not us.”