Featured Image: nabanews.net
Andrew White speaks slowly and deliberately, partly the result of his thoughtfulness but also due to the ravages of his multiple sclerosis. “The bounty on my head has gone up recently, to around $70 million”, he says. “I’ve thought of finding someone to carry it out, as long as he splits it with me down the middle.” A pause, and then we both laugh out loud. ‘The Vicar of Baghdad’, the most high-profile foreigner in Iraq, the man invited into the country by the Saddam Hussein regime who stayed to help the grotesquely besieged and persecuted Christians of a weeping, devastated nation.
He has become an internationally known and respected figure and because of that one of the most hated men within jihadist circles. Now forbidden – by friends more than enemies – from returning to Iraq, he was obliged to travel with 35 heavily armed bodyguards when he traveled around Baghdad. “It was the strangest experience of parish visit imaginable. In front of me was a tank, behind me an armoured personnel carrier.”
He was in Canada for a few days back in early December 2014, where he broke the story of four Iraqi Christian children who defied ISIS and refused to convert to Islam. “They told them to say the words that would make them Muslim”, he explains, his eyes moistening for the first time. “They refused, insisting that they loved Jesus, that Jesus was with them. So they cut off their heads. How, how can we respond, what should we do?”
It’s not the first horror the man has seen and the systematic destruction of the Christian community has been one of the open wounds of the world’s body politic for some years now. Whatever Saddam Hussein may have been, he was not intolerant of Christians and other minorities, partly as a divide and conquer policy but also because he was a secular nationalist, a Baathist leader just as is Basher al-Assad in Syria. In a confused, confusing attempt to make the Christians of the United States safe, George Bush’s war made the lives of Christians in Iraq virtually impossible. “I think if you ask any Christian in Iraq and now Syria, they will all tell you that they want to leave”, explains White. “The streets where they, where I, could walk entirely safely are now so dangerous that we would never dare go there.”
Whatever the arguments for or against the Iraq war, western governments seemed unaware of the acute vulnerability of the region’s ancient Christians. They pre-date Islam in Iraq by centuries and numbered more than 5 per cent of the population. Now, through death or exile, more than two thirds have disappeared and the trend seems invincible.
“I can’t return so I now I work from Jordan and Israel” says White. “But who knows how long Jordan will stand?” It was as if all of the toxins of a sick society were suddenly pumped into the Iraqi bloodstream and Christians, as almost everywhere in the Muslim and especially Arab world, possessed the least resistance.
There is something poignantly appropriate about this deeply good, intelligent, empathetic man battling for such a mistreated people as he himself battles against a disease that shows no sympathy and no discrimination. His two assistants are both young Iraqis; one a Christian who is his adopted son, the other a hijab-wearing woman. Some people are surprised by this but they shouldn’t be.
“All of us, Muslim and Christian, call those who would kill us ‘the bad guys’,” he says. “They claim to be Islamic but there are millions of witnesses – other Muslims – to their betrayal of the religion.” And then the Vicar of Baghdad prepares to leave and we all hope “the bad guys” don’t find a way to get to him, to silence him. He wants us to hear the message he has been speaking of for so long. The violence of the jihadists is obscene but the indifference of the world little better.
Michael Coren is a television host, radio personality, syndicated columnist, author and speaker. michaelcoren.com