'We weren’t even at opposite ends of the table. Because he was in the eyes, and I was fighting over my own bit of space to keep the patient alive.' If you’re surprised to learn that Canon Andrew White used to work alongside Bashar al-Assad in the same London operating theatre, then you clearly haven’t met White – perhaps better known as the Vicar of Baghdad. Once you have, nothing about him will surprise you. A tall, bearish, immediately likeable man, his enthusiasm is contagious, whether it’s for vanilla ice cream, or intercession in war zones.
When he talks to me via Skype from Jordan – a couple of days after we’ve met in Jerusalem – he’s half thinking about flying back, just to get a shofar, so that he can celebrate Rosh Hashanah properly. 'I’m quite used to doing crazy things!' he explains. And some of the things he’s done certainly do strike you as crazy. Crazy, extreme, wonderful things. Often involving dangerous places and people. He describes many of these people – although few in his position would – as ‘friends’, and he brings them together, when otherwise they refuse. That’s the real gift of this anaesthetist-turned-priest-turned-religious-diplomat – the way in which he so easily elicits trust. He uses it for one goal: peace.
White has continued to assemble the representatives of warring religions since his original success, the 2002 Alexandria Declaration, about which he remains proud, 'The first time that all the different religious leaders – Muslim, Jewish, Christian – had all come together, and signed a declaration, a commitment.' This was a commitment to cooperation in the face of conflict in the Holy Land; as a "first step", it called for a ‘religiously sanctioned cease-fire’.
Last year, in Cyprus, White managed to convene a group of leading Iraqi clerics – both Sunni and Shia – and Israeli rabbis. 'There we were together, the Iraqis and the Israelis. In one room, for three days. One of the chief rabbis said, "I never dreamt that such a meeting could happen. I never thought that anything could be achieved. But, after three days, I have three words to say: fear is cancelled." The Imam said, "I came here hating you Israelis. I wanted to see Israel destroyed. I wanted to see all the Jews destroyed. And then I looked into your eyes. I heard your story. You heard my story. And I loved you."'
Iraq is at the epicentre of all White does. While, however, he may still be ‘of’, he is no longer the Vicar ‘in’ Baghdad: he is now based between Jordan and Israel. Almost a year ago, he had to leave Iraq, the Archbishop of Canterbury having said, 'Look here, Andrew – you’re more use to us alive than dead.' Although this means that he can no longer live in his gated compound in downtown Baghdad, he tells me, 'Well, I have left, and I haven’t.'
Emotionally, this is clearly true. When I comment that he must be incredibly worried about his friends back there, he pauses, and his slow, considered, voice slows even further, 'Don’t tell me that, because I’ll start worrying. I’m so worried about them.' He pauses again. 'I try and call them...' At this point, the power cuts out in Jerusalem; our temporary severance seems representative of what must often happen when he does.
But his work in Iraq is not over. Nor does it remain solely within Baghdad. Many of the Iraqi Christians who had lived there fled to Mosul (which, as he points out, is modern-day biblical Nineveh). Isis took over Mosul, and some of those who survived escaped again – to Erbil, in Kurdistan. White followed with relief work. 'For those in the 53 per cent of the country that Isis controls, it’s really like a hellhole,’ he says. ‘It’s terrible. For those in Kurdistan, it’s safer.' Many Christians continued to move, crossing the border west. White’s new base in Amman was prescient: 'My very people who were in Baghdad were now in Jordan with me. So we started church there.'
He also set up a school, on the demands of a small boy, who arrived in Jordan with his mother and siblings, after his father had been murdered. White’s organisation (the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East) helped when the family couldn’t cope financially, and the boy told him, 'I only want one other thing. We’re not allowed to go to school in Jordan. None of the Iraqi children are. I want school.' White replied, 'Ok. I will get you school.' And, within two weeks, he had; it is now at capacity, with 300 pupils, and many more waiting to attend. 'It’s flourishing. It’s doing so well. And a very key part of our work is just running (it).'
White is also spending time in Jerusalem. His involvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations has persisted since the heady hopes of the Alexandria Declaration. Today, he is not so positive: 'The reality of the matter is that nothing is happening. The whole peace process is dead. We need radically to work at befriending the Israelis, and befriending the Palestinians – in getting them both to trust (us). But it’s all really difficult. The Palestinian side aren’t really serious about engaging with Israel. And Israel aren’t really serious about making the compromises that they need to make to move forward. It’s like so many situations in the political world: you can only move forward, if you’re willing to make compromises. I don’t see either side willing to make any compromises.'
I ask about the future, and whether a change of leadership would help. He says that he doesn’t see anyone in place to take over from Netanyahu. Aside from a tentative mention of Saeb Erekan, he’s also unsure about a positive successor for Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, he almost longs for the days of Yasser Arafat, sighing, 'It was actually better with him. At least you knew who you were dealing with. And at least people listened to him. He talked a load of rubbish most of the time... Meetings with him could either be him shouting, or him laughing, or him crying. But at least people followed him. The problem is with Mahmoud Abbas, nobody follows him...'
And what about outside help? Both being Conservatives, our discussion turns to Tony Blair, whose Quartet effort he denounces. 'I don’t think he managed to do anything! There’s no recollection of him actually achieving a single thing.'
However, like many who live there, White feels that Israel is an incomparably safe place. He also sees it to be 'the most intelligent country. Not in the Middle East – in the world!' This is one of the reasons he opposes the Iran Deal: 'If Israel says it’s wrong, it’s wrong...' He continues, 'When you look at (the Deal) in depth, you can see what really has been discussed. It’s actually very dangerous.'
He is certainly no fan of current American foreign policy. His experiences in Iraq have led him to think that if the Coalition had not withdrawn, the country would not be as it is. 'I’m sorry that Britain became part of that. Caught up in the thoughts and policies of the ghastly ‘O-man’. Obama didn’t know what he was doing, and he didn’t care about our people. He cared purely about the Americans.'
Again, you learn quickly never to be surprised by White. It would be easy to assume that, as a priest, he’s solely an humanitarian aid force, praying for non-hostile solutions. Yet he’s anything but an idealist. Being all for peace doesn’t mean being unrealistic about the use of force. When I ask if he thinks that more should be done to intervene in the Middle East, he simply answers, 'Yes, I do.'
That is what he’s convinced is needed in Iraq: 'The only way to really see a difference is to have a multi-national force, with troops on the ground. The reality is that Isis is not really being dealt with, and we’re letting them get away with it, and we’re just attacking them from on high. And the future is really bleak. Unless there’s some major defensive against extremists, they’re going to take over, and have a very significant role.'
He sees the effects of Isis on the Christians in Iraq, and on those who have fled to Jordan, and he worries about the global approach. While discussing the European refugee crisis, he reflects, 'It’s interesting that they’re saying, ‘Only take people from Syria,’ and here we have 600,000 Iraqis. And nobody – not even Jordan – recognizes the Iraqi refugees. They’re just forgotten, because the UN has decided that it is the Syrians that they’re honing in on. And, yes, the Syrian situation is serious, and the Syrians do need help – but you can’t get much worse than Isis burning all your family.'
For the record, however, he sided with Angela Merkel’s initial response over David Cameron’s: 'I can assure you one thing: Germany is more right than Britain. We might be good Tories, but the good Tories aren’t being very good in this one.' But, really, he clarifies, 'We need people to be taken seriously in whatever countries they can get to nearby. And we need the UN to take on – the UN High Commission for Refugees – to take on seriously the issue of relocation, and their needs, which are varied in their own countries.'
He also believes that the controversial differentiation between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ is only relevant when the terms are applied properly: 'The fact is that all the people coming from the Middle East are refugees. They are not economic migrants. They are economic migrants coming from Sierra Leone, and Cameroon, and those countries. The people from the Middle East are not. And there’s got to be a major distinction between them and others.'
White is a thinker. As evinced by his views on Israel, he’s an unabashed advocate of intelligence; he had a clever father, who helped him to understand its value. And, because of this, he accepts no superficial answers. He wants to know the truth, and – regardless of risk – tells it, often outspokenly. But he will try anything for peace. It is these qualities that make people trust him – and then, sometimes, each other. It’s easy to forget he’s a priest, and it’s easy to forget he’s a diplomat; he’s just himself, and he’s quite extraordinary.
I ask if he’s seen Assad again, since their days battling cataracts at the Western Eye Hospital. 'No, never at all. I never spoke to him outside of the operating room. I would like to. I’ve often thought it’d be good if I could see him, and remind him of the old days.' Maybe you think this sounds glib – meeting up with the ‘Butcher of Syria’ for banter about the past? But, once more, that would simply mean that you had never met Andrew White. If anyone can coax this world towards confronting its nightmares, it’s him.