Can a Priest Heal Iraq's Sect Strife?

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Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty

Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad St George's church prays at a 2007 service in in Baghdad, Iraq.

Chaplain Andrew White doesn't much like religion of any sort. "Religion on the whole is very dangerous," says White, the head of one of Baghdad's last Christian churches and an emerging voice in Iraq's troubled reconciliation process. "Religion basically has power. And that power can either be used creatively or destructively. Often it's used destructively. Certainly what we've seen here is in essence religion going very wrong and destroying a lot of people and a lot of things."

Originally from the London area and an activist for reconciliation between the West and Islam, White traveled widely through the Middle East before the war that overthrew Saddam. In the aftermath, White remembers trying to warn various U.S. and British officials about the dangerous religious currents gathering speed in Iraq, but he says he found few believers. U.S. leadership at the time seemed to think Iraq's legacy of secularism could sap any welling religious venom, while elections would cement a sense of unity and cooperation. Of course it didn't turn out that way. White took on the role of vicar at St. George's church, the only Anglican church in Iraq, and watched as dozens of his parishioners died amid the rising violence.

Now, with violence down in Iraq, long-stalled efforts aimed at bringing together the country's violently divided Sunni and Shi'ite sects are looking slightly more promising lately. White's Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, established in 2005, is once again at the forefront promoting dialogue among opposing religious leaders by organizing conferences and conducting shuttle diplomacy between Shi'a and Sunni groups. Much of the funding has come from the Danish government and individual donors and churches in White's native England. Now, the U.S. Department of Defense has come to take White's campaign seriously as well, buying in for roughly half a million dollars a year in the hope that White may indeed be enough of a peacemaker to help break down Iraq's bitter animosities.

White's role as a humanitarian sometimes seems to eclipse his profile as a religious leader. But it's the latter identity that gives White credibility among Iraqi clerics, ayatollahs and sheiks. White knows a wide array of such holy men, including Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who occasionally phones the vicar. (White does not speak Arabic but has a translator at the ready.) As a would-be peacemaker, White represents a rather odd coalition of backers when addressing the likes of Sadr. Top American generals, Bush administration insiders, Danes and a band of individual donors White describes as mostly "little old ladies" have in essence gathered behind him, believing he can heal at least some of Iraq's wounds by bringing key religious figures together in a display of unified leadership.

Chiefly with Defense Department funds, White has organized and hosted a series of conferences for Iraqi religious leaders that have come together in Amman, Cairo, Copenhagen and Baghdad. He hopes another one in the coming months will lead to a joint Sunni-Shi'ite fatwa, or religious edict, denouncing sectarian violence. "A lot of the people have realized how bad things are, and they want to do something," says White. "We're beginning to see a real interest and desire for the first time."

White is jocular about his work, in spite of its grimness. He was working as an operating room technician in the United Kingdom when he decided to pursue church ministry, which he says in some ways is similar to the hospital work he did. "I set out in life putting people to sleep in a different way, with anesthetics," says White, whose wry sense of humor draws smiles and laughs easily. "Drugs or sermons, take your pick. Drugs are quicker, more effective."

White, 44, rose quickly in the world of English clergy after earning a master's in philosophy from Cambridge University. By 1998 he was the youngest canon, the rank before bishop, in the Church of England. That same year he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition that slowly dismantles the nervous system. On bad days White, who walks with a cane, sometimes falls down and loses his vision. But the ailment takes greater hold of him when he visits his wife and two young sons in Britain. In Baghdad, however, the work appears to keep the worst of the disease at bay.

When he started on his quest, Baghdad struck him as a good place to begin. So in the late 1990s White journeyed frequently to Iraq to meet with spiritual and political leaders and further various humanitarian initiatives. He quickly developed a deep affection for Iraqi people and a fearful loathing for the regime of Saddam Hussein. In 2003, as the Bush White House was sounding a death knell for Saddam, White was one of the only Western religious figures to voice support for war.

White says he does not regret his initial support for the war. Like many ardent proponents in Washington, White points to the crimes of the former regime and finds solace in the righteousness of Saddam's downfall. Not even a tally of miseries White knows firsthand from Iraq shakes his sense of certainty over the justness of the war: Perhaps half a million Iraq civilians killed, more than 4 million Iraqis displaced and countless souls left scared by violence in a devastated country facing an uncertain future. "This was totally justified," says White. "There was no other way."

But he can survey the damage among the congregation at his church. Most of the worshippers are widows. And despite an overall drop in Iraq's violence, White's parishioners still face enormous threats. Iraq's Christians, once a respected and privileged class, are now just another persecuted minority here. Eighty-nine members of White's congregation were killed in the last six months alone. Amid so much need and desperation, White has transformed the church into a kind of aid center, providing medical services, food and even rent money to parishioners.

White readily admits that Iraq's reconciliation is a slow and uncertain process, especially considering how persistent the country's violence still is. Bombings and shootings remain frequent occurrences in Baghdad. White was among the Green Zone dwellers who came under a hail of rocket fire around Easter, when Sadr's Mahdi Army militia hammered the area before a cease-fire brought calm. White says he's happy in Baghdad regardless of the political situation. But he sees the sad longing for peace in the eyes of his parishioners and other Iraqis. "We have to look after each other, and these people are in acute need," says White, who plans to continue his work indefinitely. "What's the good of just talking about it and saying prayers and doing nothing?"