The Vicar of Baghdad
by Canon Andrew White
Monarch Books, 192 pages, ISBN 978-1854248763
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Review by Timothy Biles, Editor for Bible Lands magazine:
If you have an interest in the Middle East, an anxiety about the Iraq War or a concern about Christian/Moslem relations you will find plenty to feed your mind in this book. Andrew White is well placed, inside Baghdad, to write about all three issues and his frequent meetings with the principal players in religion and politics gives the reader unique insights.
The book is worth buying for the Siege of the Church of the Nativity chapter alone. He was present, trying to assist negotiations and his first-hand account is compelling reading, though harrowing. Another chapter tells of the problems of getting the heads of the three great Abrahamic religions to confer together and draw up the Alexandria Declaration which was a significant achievement at the time. Later chapters describe the congregation and life at St George’s Church in Baghdad and should make any parish priest in UK think ten times before ever grumbling again as White needs a security convoy to get him to the church and body armour to protect him while he is there. One of his candid admissions is that the congregation, which had hardly any Anglicans, was gathered from the various Orthodox and Catholic traditions whose clergy were not too pleased with him, especially as he gave the congregation cash one week and food the next week. The numbers grew by a hundred a month and reached nearly two thousand! Parish priests at home, who spend endless time and effort as money raisers will be amazed by the ease with which he finds vast sums. When £30k was needed for a child’s operation, it was there within the week. When an interfaith conference in Surrey needed £1million for the policing and he had a week to raise it, he produced it in a day. When a church leader was abducted a $40k ransom was found, half of it a gift from GodTV. At the same time his personal security arrangements were costing £750 a day. Where all the money came from is only one of the questions this book poses, and does not answer.
Another thing which will astonish readers is the author’s obvious energy, even though he makes it clear he is suffering the progressive illness of multiple sclerosis. Then there is more astonishment at the apparent ease with which he moves unharmed between warring factions at a time when bombs are around every corner. No one could undertake this work without a big ego and some readers will find the use of the first person singular, ten times a page on average, a bit hard to bear. This trait is underlined by the twenty four pictures, almost all of the author winning an Award or alongside a famous name: the Pope, ayatollahs and sheiks galore, Prime Ministers and many generals, usually inside the Pentagon. It is the Pentagon connection and the easy relations with the US military that will worry some readers. He is clear about his support for the invasion of Iraq, he is clear in his conviction that there were WMD, he is clear about his support for McCain over Obama for the US Presidency. This identification of the Christian church with the US military must raise the spectre of ‘Crusade’ among Moslems and yet when 89 members of his Christian congregation are abducted in five months and eleven of his staff disappear or are killed, he doesn’t seem to see a connection. Many readers will be disturbed by this.
This book doesn’t answer many questions but it is an inside story told with passion that needs to be read with cautious concern.
Featured in Bible Lands magazine, Pentecost 2009