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by Charles Gardner
The Vicar of Baghdad has come to Jerusalem to encourage participants in a conference aimed at cementing bonds of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.
Canon Andrew White, who leads a 6,500-strong congregation at St George’s in the heart of the war-torn city, spoke of how his people were happy despite much suffering – 1,276 of them have perished as victims of violence in the past ten years.
But Iraq has a Christian heritage going back to ancient times, he explained, and was part of the ‘Isaiah 19 Highway’ which forms the vision of the At the Crossroads conference, meeting at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City.
This so-called ‘highway’ – prophesied by Isaiah (chapter 19) – speaks of how Egypt, Israel and Assyria (comprising much of the Middle East) will one day be a blessing to each other, and delegates have come from all over the Arab world and beyond.
Canon White’s entire congregation originates from Nineveh in northern Iraq, where the prophet Jonah reluctantly preached after being swallowed by a whale and where ‘Doubting Thomas’ brought the message of the risen Jesus 700 years later.
But Iraqi Christians are now paying a heavy price for their faith, yet they soldier on undaunted. When asked how they could all be so happy when things were so awful, one of Canon White’s adopted daughters replied: “When you’ve lost everything, Jesus is all you’ve got.”
He said Iraq formed the northern part of the highway described by Isaiah as God’s “handiwork”.
And he revealed that representatives of Christ Church had been responsible for founding St George’s in Baghdad in 1864, so the link today was highly appropriate.
Canon White is an Englishman who studied theology at Cambridge and was then literally ‘sent to Coventry’, where he became canon of the cathedral there with responsibility for the International Centre for Reconciliation.
Now traveling about at great risk and with the added discomfort of suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, he has a great love for Jews as well as Muslims and has spent some time in Israel including a spell as the only Gentile ever to attend an Ultra-Orthodox school there.
Every week in his church they begin their service by singing the Shma, the ancient Hebrew declaration of worship for the one true God.
He pointed out that the ‘Isaiah 19 Highway’ was particularly significant in that it represents all the places through which Abraham traveled – and he is the father of both Arab and Jew.
His church, closed by Saddam Hussein in 1991 when the Americans and British began bombing Baghdad, was re-opened in 2003 without a stick of furniture except for the dictator’s ‘throne’.
Initially peopled mainly by diplomats and military staff, it emptied out when the country started getting really dangerous, at which point Iraqis began attending. And it grew exponentially in spite of the carnage.
He told some extraordinary stories. Faced with a famine at one point, the Grand Ayatollah came to ask if he would pray as there was no food in Iraq.
The vicar had just $12 in his pocket but, presumably mindful of the feeding of the 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish and because he had no intention of offending the Ayatollah, he prayed.
As a result – and apparently without any money being exchanged – thousands of tons of meat was delivered to his premises and 50 refrigerated lorries were laid on to distribute it all over the country.
Canon White said he had seen the glory of God in Iraq. On visiting the shrine of the prophet Ezekiel, located in an ancient oriental synagogue turned mosque, he saw an angel standing at each corner, and has seen angels every single day since.
“When they killed 58 of our church people one day, there were angels all around the funeral cars.”
He said the glory of God was coming from the East, just as Ezekiel had foretold in chapter 43, and it was returning to Jerusalem.
Canon White is just back from America, where he picked up the 2014 William Wilberforce Award, presented for his efforts at reconciliation by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
A feature of the conference so far is of Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians praying for and embracing one another while delegates heard of a youth conference in Israel at which Jewish, Arab and Palestinian young people came together for three days of worship, and of how an Archbishop in the region has described the event as “the real peace process in the Middle East”.
Indeed the conference worship has been something of a foretaste of heaven as glorious songs of praise – in Turkish, Hebrew and English – are accompanied by skilful musicians. And, with some sessions open to the public, many nations from beyond the region have joined the delegates. At one stage dozens of individuals representing different countries took it in turn to praise God in their own language. And it was exciting for me as a South African to hear a visitor from Cape Town praying in Afrikaans.
Charles Gardner is a Cape Town-born journalist who has worked in the newspaper industry for 40 years. Part-Jewish, he grew up in South Africa and became a fully committed Christian as a young man living in London before moving to Yorkshire more than 33 years ago. He is the author of “Israel the Chosen: Why the Jews are special” and is currently working on plans to launch a new UK national newspaper reporting and interpreting the news from a biblical perspective.