Friday, March 21, 2008

The Vicar of Baghdad

Editor's Note: I've met Canon Andrew White during his visits to Glen Ellyn's St. Mark's Episcopal Church. He's better known as the vicar of Baghdad, the only Anglican priest still working in the city. The words below are his and were printed in The Times of London on Monday, March 17.

"Five years ago today I had real hope that things would soon change in the nation of Iraq, after years of tyranny, dictatorship and suffering. Unlike any other non Iraqis I meet now in Iraq, I had been here before the war. I had experienced the fear and tyranny of the Saddam regime and I openly said we needed force to bring change. I knew that this could not be done by the Iraqi people. I feared what would happen to the people I loved during the days of the war. I was full of joy when the war finished so soon and I quickly returned to the nation I loved. On returning I found a sense of liberation, joy and freedom. There was a joy I had never seen before. Chaos was certainly there but we hoped it would soon cease. I will never forget the words of the top British General telling me to leave my return for a couple of weeks because 'security should then be sorted out'. Five years later it has still not been sorted.

"It is impossible to really describe what it is like here in Baghdad. I live in the fortified International Zone but even here I am surrounded by my bodyguards at all times and we can't move without carrying the right pieces of plastic ID around our necks. When we do move we can't move more than five miles an hour, have to stop every few yards a different security barriers and when we get to them the colour of your piece of plastic dictates how quickly you will be allowed through. All very intense, but it does not compare to my regular trips to St George's Church.

"This journey begins at the home of the Iraqi National Security Advisor. I am driven into the security compound by my bodyguards and transferred to the care of the Iraqi Army. With body armour on, I take my seat in an armoured car with blackened windows. Other military vehicles surround us and slowly we drive through the IZ stopping at it countless checkpoints. Eventually we leave the IZ and are met by an array of Iraqi police cars and further military vehicles. The sirens go on, guns are pointed out of the windows of all the vehicles and we speed down the road. If we meet a traffic jam, the other cars are yelled at through loud speakers and they try and make way. If that does not work our whole convoy just moves to the other side of the road, and moves the wrong way quickly down the road. At every crossroad, the police have stopped all other traffic. We come to the road where the church is- the road is closed off. We speed to the Church and drive into the grounds. The army run to surround the church, others check that it is safe and I am eventually allowed out of the car to be met by scores of our children.

"With the army remaining inside and outside we begin our worship. My mind goes back to the days before the war. There was none of this kind of security, and there was no congregation at our Church, why because it was Anglican. Commonly it is still known as the English Church. Our congregation is large, our worship wonderful but I only need to look at our people to realise what has really happened here following the war. We only have six men in our congregation of several hundred, the rest have been killed. Many of even the young women wear black as they are still mourning the loss of their husbands. Scores of people have been kidnapped, even this year. So from the pulpit every week I see the effect of war on these people. It is impossible for us to forget the tragedy outside. We hear the guns shooting and the bombs blasting and we simply continue worshipping. After the service food is provided for the whole congregation- we alternate; one week it is food the next week money. If we do not give, they do not have. The cost of this provision is colossal and it is primarily provided by Churches in England. Every week thanks go out to those who enable our people to live.

"So we can not forget the tragedy now, it is all around. I cannot forget the Iraq before the war, and the fear and oppression that were experienced everyday. I can not forget either the mistakes made after the war. The continual lack of engagement with the religious community and the continued belief that the secular position of Iraq would supersede was dangerous and naïve.

"Despite the many mistakes that have been made I still do not regret that the war happened. I regret deeply what happened after the war. I take hope from the work of the Multi National Forces in Iraq, not least the US and UK troops; they are doing an outstanding job. I also take hope from the way that the Iraqi Army is developing, and from the work of Dr. Mowaffak Al Rubbaie, Iraq's National Security Advisor, and General Dave Petraeus the Chief US Military Officer.

"Reconciliation is certainly needed here. It is at the very heart of our hopes in the rebuilding process. It is a process that must involve both the political and religious leaders. To this end we are met in Copenhagen from 18th February with the religious and political leaders of Iraq to try and find a way forward and to work together on this very point. It has taken months to get this meeting together but with the support of the Danish Government it did happen. We wait to see its results. Last week we met in Cairo with Sunni and Shia religious leaders, including the deputy of Muqtada Al Sadr and the representative of Ayotollah Ali Sistani. Top Sunni Clerics were also there. A total rejection of all violence was pronounced. It was a major achievement. This week a major reconciliation conference organized by the Iraqi Government is taking place. It is between political groups but key representatives have not shown up. The reality is that in our meeting last week in Cairo we had far more groups represented and it was paid for by the Pentagon. Reconciliation is the only answer. We still have a very long way to go but we can't give up.

"It can not be denied that the last five years here have been terrible. That all around we see such devastation. All I can say is that we cannot and must not give up our efforts to rebuild this once great nation. It is so hard, there are many days when we just wonder how more difficult it can get, but we have a big God on our side and we know that with His help we will succeed."

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