While thousands of Christians flee Iraq, the Vicar of Baghdad keeps on going back
He calls them "My people". Not because he was born among them, or because he shares their religion, ethnicity or cultural identity. But because, as he says, he loves them. And that love transcends the politics of religion and the religion of politics, and history, social division and skin colour. "I love these people," he reiterates, and he explains what he means by "My people":
Firstly let me say what I do not mean. I am not only referring to those who are members of our church in Baghdad. We don’t have any church members as such; we have hundreds if not thousands who see themselves as part of our community. They are both Christians and Muslims. The Christians are of all different Christian denominations: Chaldean, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian-Ancient Church of the East Old and New Calendar, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian. Then there are a large number of our Church community who are not even Christian but Muslim both Sunni and Shia. So in reality I see all these people as my people in Iraq as my people. I would also include in my people all the members of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq (the HCRLI), which I direct, and there it is not even just Christians and Muslims but also Mandians, Yazeedis and Shabach. So all these people are whom I would consider My People in Iraq.And so, while hundreds of thousands of Christians flee the horrors of The Islamic State, Canon Andrew White keeps on going back for the sake of his people: to be with them, support them, provide and pray for them. That is his vocation: the summum bonum; the goal of his spiritual life. He doesn't know what the future holds, as he told John Humphrys on the BBC Radio4 Today programme. He just loves his people, and in their faces he sees the image of God.
Iraq is not the only place where I would consider that I have my people; fundamental to this group I would also consider those I work with in Israel and Palestine. For the work of FRRME is not just St George’s Baghdad and Iraq. We are about working for peace throughout the Middle East so Israel and Palestine is a major part of that. So here we are working intimately for peace amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims. This is also a vital part of our work. We are the only organization that is working actively in both Iraq and Israel and this is the work that the Lord has called us to do. Despite the risks we will not stop doing it because he who has called us will not fail us.
Meanwhile things continue to be very difficult in Iraq. The Christians who have fled Mosul are still in grave danger and many of them are “My People” and now you know what I mean by that many of My People come from Mosul/Nineveh and they go back to there homes often in the summer and had been caught up in the tragedy there and cannot return. ISIS continues to control much of Iraq and though it may not have taken Baghdad yet it does appear to have many so called “Hidden Cells” in Baghdad which will reveal themselves at the right time. So your prayers are still much needed.
His vision is to be the 'Vicar of Baghdad', to minister to his people; to help them make sense out of the pervasive false religion, anti-religion, nihilism and meaninglessness of the human condition. "Things are so desperate, our people are disappearing. We have had people massacred, their heads chopped off," he laments. His vision takes him beyond himself and concerns for his own safety: it is christocentric; looking to Jesus not simply in the wonder of His own person, but in His compassion for the world.
The Church of England has issued prayers for the persecuted Christians of Mosul. Believers are praying fervently, and sermons are being preached in churches and cathedrals up and down the land. In Westminster Abbey, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall leads by example and articulates prophetically:
..As we look back at the development over many centuries in the West of the freedoms we take for granted and at the end of a time when the law imposed penalties on heretics and demanded adherence to particular religious practices, we recognise that there is much of which to repent in our past. As we give thanks for freedom of religion and freedom of speech, even while we regret many of the opinions and attitudes that are freely followed and expressed, we see that there can be no return to an imposed Christendom.But the preacher's danger is that when he has preached about a thing, he is prone to imagine he has done it. And the congregation's danger is that when they heave heard about a thing, they subconsciously believe they have done something about it. And the blogger's danger is that he is hardened under the noise of his own reproofs.
This recognition intensifies our prayer for the people of the Middle East and parts of North and West Africa where a reborn militant Islamism seeks to impose an intensity of religious practice and adherence to one faith that allows no freedom of religion or of conscience or of speech. Our prayer in particular is for the Christians deprived of home and hearth, of their ancient communities and their settled way of life. The resurgence of active and destructive conflict between Israel and Palestine is another urgent cause for prayer. It seems deeply sad and strangely ironic that as we approach the centenary of conflagration in Europe with all that it implied for the rest of the world, so now we face a terrible conflagration in the Middle East with potential implications for Europe, America and the entire world. Pray earnestly that the West does not respond to the threat as we did a hundred years ago.
Our leaders need the Wisdom of Solomon and we ourselves need the assurance of the letter to the Romans from which we heard as our second lesson. St Paul was aware of the bloody persecution that threatened the emergent Christian community. He himself before his conversion had been responsible for severe assaults on the early Christians. But his comfort is to assure them that whatever they suffer, be it the loss of life itself, they can never be separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Most of us, perhaps all of us here, may pray with some confidence that the fate befalling Christians in Iraq and Syria, in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, is unlikely to befall us. But however cushioned our lives feel or indeed are, we live with uncertainty. We cannot see the future. There may be many perils awaiting us. Whatever befall us, whether hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword, it will not, it cannot, separate us from the love of Christ, love that conquers everything.
Augustine said that a preacher must take care to listen to his own sermon: "For he is a vain preacher of the word of God without, who is not a hearer within." Listening to a sermon is not enough. Reading a blog is not enough. Praying is something. But it is not all we can do. We can help Canon Andrew White care for his people by giving generously and sacrificially, for they, in the immense family of humanity, are our people, too. The Vicar of Baghdad intercedes for them. Jesus died for them. We share the same Father. Their suffering is ours. They are us.