Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, is not, in person, at all as I’d imagined him. His memoir, about life as first a medic, then a cleric, is chock-a-block with famous friends. Pope John Paul II was a pal, the Grand Ayatollah of Baghdad, General David Petraeus. ‘Oh, Andrew knows everyone,’ I was told when I asked anyone about him, and I’m afraid my heart hardened. I arrived in the rain at his house in Liphook, Hampshire, preparing myself for a vain man, full of his own derring-do.
More fool me. Canon White is instantly, unusually lovable. He greets me wearing a sweatshirt with the caption ‘Real men become vicars’. ‘Look!’ he says delightedly. ‘Look at my hoodie!’ We talk for close to two hours about Islam, Isis and evil, and his work as a mediator between the various hate-filled factions of the Middle East. By the time I leave it occurs to me that Canon Andrew White is something of a saint.
It’s not that he’s perfect, but that he’s guileless. He’s pure of heart in the way few people over five ever are. It makes sense that he’s spent two decades as a peace-maker, negotiating with tyrants and psychopaths, because he’s utterly disarming.
We sit in his study, which is arranged like a front room in the Middle East: seats around the walls. And on most of the seats, perched or lounging, is a young person, all employed by White’s foundation (for relief and reconciliation in the Middle East). Throughout our interview they fuss over White, organise him, join in the conversation, which is interrupted from time to time by phone calls from a man called Des who has been given the job of finding for the Canon the perfect red suit-lining.
I say: ‘I gather the Archbishop has recalled you. He’s said it’s not safe for you to stay in Baghdad?’ Canon Andrew nods glumly, but he admits that his friend Justin Welby has a point. They worked together mediating in Nigeria, so the archbishop is not risk-averse. But Isis are now too dangerous. ‘Isis are on the doorstep of Baghdad. Their bombs are going off all the time,’ says White. Not least last Friday, when, before the Paris atrocity, a suicide bomber blew up 18 Shia Muslims. Has he ever been personally threatened? ‘I invited an Isis man to dinner to talk once,’ says White, ‘But he replied -saying that if he came he would chop my head off.’
This sounds crude enough to be a bad joke. It wasn’t. And if White had his head removed he wouldn’t be the first member of his congregation to be assassinated by Isis.
St George’s, White’s church in Baghdad, once had a congregation of more than 6,000 and a school, a clinic and a food bank. This great community has been more than decimated by Isis. ‘They killed over 1,000 of my congregation,’ he says. ‘Can you believe that? And now the others have fled, too.’
‘It’s not just Isis.’ This from a girl who looks 15 but is 27-year-old Dr Sarah Ahmed, sitting in pyjamas on the sofa. She’s White’s right-hand woman, a Muslim, still working in Iraq. She says: ‘The truth is that the congregation came to hear Andrew — Christians and Muslims both — and now he’s left, they’ve gone. There were 46 who came last Sunday. Forty-six!’
Muslims came to an Anglican church? ‘People respect faith in Iraq,’ says Sarah. ‘They can see he is sincere.’
So is it better to be a Christian negotiating with Muslims than to be secular, I ask. I’m always hearing that religion is the problem, not the solution, in Iraq.
‘Yes, absolutely,’ says White. ‘People say it’s important to keep religion out of the peace process in the Middle East, but you can’t have a peace process without religion. You can’t have politics without religion in the Middle East! It’s impossible. Faith is our common ground.’
How on earth do you reconcile factions who think each other literally Satanic? ‘You listen to their stories,’ says Canon White. ‘You get to know each person, love them. Perhaps you can persuade them to hear each other’s stories. That way the conspiracy theories unravel.’
This isn’t just talk. He’s had great success. ‘We signed that declaration up there,’ he points at the wall proudly, ‘That is the Chief Rabbi and Hamas saying, “We will work together and we recognise that the one thing we have in common is the belief in one God.” ’
Here we have a break for Canon White to talk to Des. The red lining is so vital, it turns out, because he is going to Jerusalem and he wants to take it to his tailor there. White is a lifelong Judaeophile and clearly longs to be back in Israel.
You’ve met with Hamas and the PLO in your work as a mediator, I say. You were actually friends with Yasser Arafat. Is that difficult for a lover of Israel?
‘Oh yes,’ says White cheerfully, but adds that it actually causes problems with pro-Israel western Christians, not with Israelis. ‘They say, “How can you deal with evil men? With these evil Muslims?” Well, I don’t like the term evil Muslims. They are no more evil than Christians are. We haven’t got a very good history either, have we?’
Equally, it’s pro-Palestinian Christians, he says, who mind his friendship with Jews.
And Isis? Can you hear their stories? Will they hear yours? White’s face falls. ‘It’s hard with them, because with Isis it is just about power. You see, these are Sunnis who felt that they had control once. Even under Saddam they had power and influence. And if you want power back, what do you do? You use force. If you can’t win democratically, you blow people up.’
But they’re so extreme, I say. All those civilians in Paris. All those children, and fellow Muslims. Aren’t Isis unusually evil?
Here White is out of step with liberal opinion. He agrees absolutely that Isis are uniquely horrible, but he thinks the problem of talking to them comes from within the Quran itself.
‘The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness… there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me. This makes it very difficult to talk to Isis because they can show you quite clearly that it is what Allah wants. They can justify their position when Allah says you should combat and fight the infidel and they say, “Well, these are infidels.” So the question is, how can you prove that these are not infidels? And you can’t.’
So what’s the answer, Canon White? Is it ground troops? In recent weeks he’s been quoted calling for boots on the ground. He’s a tough guy, for all his soft heart, and an admirer of the military.
But is he quite sure that as a man of peace, he wants war? As White begins to nod, Dr Sarah pipes up again from the sofa. She says: ‘Andrew, come on. It will not help! Yes, maybe with violence they will make some temporary progress, but it will also fuel tensions.’ She turns to me: ‘If I am angry with Andrew and I hit him I feel better for two seconds but then he would hit me back and there is no end to it. No end.’
There’s silence for a while. We both look at White. He says: ‘I know what she says is right. War creates war and we have to find other ways round doing it. Even as a raving Tory like me, I have to say Sarah is right.’
It’s the measure of the man that he listens and doesn’t stick to his guns.
Both Dr Sarah and Canon White agree on one thing: that however we combat them, Isis must not be underestimated. They’ve lived with Isis. They know.
Even now, post-Paris, the West is inclined to say: Oh, Isis are just idiots. If we grown-ups put any real effort into it they’d be easy to wipe out.
Not so, say Canon White and Dr Sarah. She tells a story about the way Isis captured a Yazidi village, which demonstrates unusual cunning: Isis first came to the village promising peace, she says. Then they said to the Yazidi: ‘We’re worried you’ll fight us, so if you really want peace too, give up your guns.’
This the foolish Yazidi did. On their third visit Isis came and surrounded the now unarmed Yazidi. They took the women and girls as sex slaves and shot all the men, bar one who played dead under the corpse of his brother and survived to tell Sarah the tale.
Clever Isis, tactical Isis.
So what can we do? ‘We can hope,’ says White, ‘and we can pray.’
The wind blows. The phone goes. Des has finally found him the right red material to impress the Israelis. White is delighted. He seems itching to be off. ‘Do you miss the Middle East when you’re not there?’
‘Oh yes!’ he says, with a look outside at the grey and gusting November. ‘I may no longer be the vicar of Baghdad, but the Middle East is home.’