Canon Andrew White: "You have got to be prepared to die for your faith"
"We have had people's heads chopped off. We are having people convert. We are even having children slaughtered and cut in half." And with these words, Newsnight's interview with Canon Andrew White ends, as he leaves the Baghdad studio to carry on ministering to his flock. "We are living in worst crisis I have ever known," he writes on Facebook. "Working day and night to meet the needs of those who have nothing. We are providing a huge amount and as you will see on this video we are all very tired, but our Lord is sustaining us."
And he does look rather tired. But there is no sense of bitterness, exasperation, or even a hint of indignation. His whole demeanour is one of peacefulness and serenity. At times he sounds almost like a soul in bliss, and perhaps that is what makes his ministry so vital in a region where every waking day brings an expectation of death.
Apparently, President Obama is bombing Northern Iraq to help save the 40,000 members of the Yazidi tribe stranded on the barren crags of Mount Sinjar, before more of them die of dehydration and starvation. The President said the US could not turn a "blind eye" to the prospect of violence "on a horrific scale", especially when the Iraqi government had requested assistance. He said the US would act "carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide".
This intervention is welcome. But one notes that it was the appalling plight of the Yazidi after the Islamic State took control of Zumar and Sinjar which has animated the politicians; not the desperate anguish of Christians after those same Sunni-Salafist fanatics butchered their way through Mosul. And now the Prime Minister has issued a statement:
The world must help them in their hour of desperate need? Why were the Christians not deemed worthy of the same level of concern and support? Why is the Prime Minister less burdened by their right to freedom and dignity? Are Christians worth less than members of a so-called 'sect'?
Baroness Warsi observed back in January that the persecution of Christians has become a "global crisis". But she did nothing. She said the UK Government was committed to standing up to such persecution. But she did nothing. She said majority Muslim nations have a duty to defend Christian minorities. But she did nothing. She assured us that she had elevated religious discrimination against Christians and other minorities to a key priority in the Government’s human rights work. But she did nothing. She visited the Pope and made a speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. But nothing came of it. She convened a committee to discuss the complex issues. But nothing came of that, either.
Words, words, words.
At least Canon Andrew White is doing something. And in his anguish are echoes of the passions and martyrdoms of generations past.
But the persecution of Christians throughout history has ultimately failed because it has tended to separate the wheat from the chaff and caused growth. Eusebius’ account of the martyrdom of Polycarp tells us: "When one governor in Asia Minor in the second century began persecuting the Christians, the entire Christian population of the region paraded before his house as a manifesto of their faith." The suffering of some Christians spurred others to more faithful living. Martyrs were perceived as having heroic qualities, and many peasants, onlookers, soldiers and members of the nobility became Christians through their witness. Tertullian observed: "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." Tacitus agreed, after the persecutions of Nero, that "in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea... but even in Rome".
The blood of Christians is seed.
Muslims loyal to the Islamic State will do what they believe they have been called by their prophet to do. Presidents and prime ministers will try to bomb them to hell. But the Living God will strengthen His people to be courageous and fearless. And persecution is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is one of the marks of true gospel ministry and discipleship. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ translates into sharing a future glory. As St Peter says, it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God: "But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled" (1Pt 3:14).
Canon Andrew White suffers with his people because Christ suffered for him, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps and in his steps. He is a bold and gracious witness to the whole world.