Canon Andrew White has been kidnapped in Baghdad, given all his money away, adopted six children, suffers from MS, is a raving Tory, an old-fashioned eccentric, and a passionate campaigner for peace in the Middle East. So who is he and is he a modern saint?
The son of a Baptist father and Pentecostal mother, Andrew White grew up in Bexley, where his sister Joanna suffered with severe anorexia and his brother Mark suffered depression, which drove him to suicide.
The family problems drove Andrew to study his twin interests – anaesthesia and theology, soon developing the ambition to become both a doctor and a vicar (no one told him he couldn’t be both).
So he became an anaesthetist at St. Thomas’ Hospital London, where he met the young Bashar al-Assad, who was training in ophthalmology. While at St. Thomas’ Andrew had a distinct ‘call’ to Anglican ministry, so studied theology at Cambridge.
He has also become competent in Arabic and Aramaic, which – when sharing a platform with him – I have seen him use with flourish, as part of his tool-kit for effective communication. Tall, broad and big boned, Andrew commands attention, even before he starts waving his arms about. He has the rare gift of making you feel he’s talking to you, even though his MS slurs his speech slightly, giving a childlike quality to his commanding delivery.
Andrew has a supportive wife Caroline and two proud sons, Josiah (19) and Jacob (17) who have continued to live in Hampshire throughout Andrew’s ministry, which is quite a sacrificial feat.
Why the Middle East?
I first met Andrew at Coventry Cathedral where he was director of the International Centre for Reconciliation, where he came to believe that religion is part of the problem in the Middle East and so must be part of the solution too – an insight missed by religiously illiterate politicians and media.
Andrew first visited Iraq in 1998 as guest of Saddam Hussein’s right hand man Tariq Aziz. He was shown the dilapidated St. George’s church building, disused since 1991 when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait and closed it because it was ‘an English church’.
In 2003 Andrew returned to Iraq and resurrected St. George’s, re-establishing the congregation, which grew to 6,500 at its peak. Today there are only about 40 families alive and still resident in Baghdad – which earned Andrew the nick-name “Vicar of Baghdad”.
In 2004 he was briefly kidnapped and tossed into a blacked-out room, strewn with amputated fingers and toes. Once he invited ISIS to dinner and they said: “Yes we’ll come but we’ll chop off your head.” Andrew comments wryly that it was ‘rather kind of them to warn me’.
In 2014 Justin Welby recalled Andrew from Iraq, suggesting: ‘You’re more use alive than dead’; hence his peripatetic travels to his flock in Jordan and Israel. He really is a vicar without a parish.
Andrew is founder and champion of the Foundation for Relief & Reconciliation in the Middle East, funded by churches, synagogues and individuals. He has 30,000 Facebook followers and has met Presidents, Prime Ministers and Pope John Paul II.
What drives him?
According to the Economist, Christians in the Middle East have decreased from 14% in 1910 to 4% today. In Iraq the drop is from 1.2 million in the 1990s to 250,000 today, in an environment where ISIS vows to eradicate Christianity from the region.
Andrew rightly challenges western governments for their failure to recognise this humanitarian threat and to act incisively to avert it. He believes – as do I – that for cultural reasons, the region only understands democracy in the context of ‘benevolent dictatorship’, such as the Jordanian Hashemite dynasty and that of the King of Morocco.
It’s time to pray for the church in the Middle East!
Source: The Good Fight by Saphora Smith, Telegraph Magazine, pg30-33