Good Friday with the “Vicar of Baghdad”

Please make a note in your diaries for 6.30pm on Good Friday at Brighton Congress Hall when our Provost, Metropolitan Jerome OSJV will interview a very special visitor to Brighton, the Reverend Canon Andrew White, formerly Vicar of St George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, since his departure for the sake of security (ordered in November 2014 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby) he has been dubbed the “Vicar of Baghdad”. He was Director of International Ministry at the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, England, promoting reconciliation in conflicts (mainly religious) across the globe. He was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy to the Middle East (George Carey) where His main aim has been to try to maintain communication between Shia and Sunni leaders, and to “gain trust of key religious leaders on both sides in various conflict areas”. He sees his role as trying to mediate and re-establish the dialogue between conflicting groups.  In 2002 he took part in trying to resolve the hostage situation at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) occupied Bethlehem and tried to capture suspected Palestinian militants. The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East was established in 2005 as part of his reconciliation work in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole.

Canon White was aware of the fear that the Iraqi people had of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and supported the invasion of Iraq, but not the aftermath. His people (the congregation of St George’s) refer to him as their “Aboona” (Father). Many of his staff have been kidnapped or killed, with up to 11 killings of staff in a single year. Canon White’s lay pastor was kidnapped in April 2007; however, he managed to raise the $40,000 ransom necessary to secure the pastor’s release and soon returned to Iraq where he stays most of the time. On 11 July 2007, Canon Andrew arrived in Britain after having fled Iraq following warnings of threats to his life, but returned later on. He is no stranger to danger, having been “hijacked, kidnapped, locked up in rooms with bits of finger and toe and things.” He has “been held at gunpoint, been attacked – the usual thing”! Before the US-led 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Christian population numbered 1.4 million. After being killed or driven out, they number only 250’000 people. Despite these difficulties, Iraq’s Christian community remains the fourth-largest indigenous Christian community in the Middle East. At the age of 33 years, just after his appointment in Coventry as a Canon of the Cathedral, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition which for many years affected his mobility and his speech. He has since been undergoing a new stem cell treatment for MS at a clinic in Baghdad that utilizes his body’s own stem cells.

Metropolitan Jerome OSJV and Canon Andrew White have been friends since 2011, meeting through the social networking site, Facebook sharing similar interests in religious affairs in the Middle East and the impact upon Christians particularly. Met. Jerome has a keen interest in the plight of persecuted Christians and has been eager to express solidarity with those suffering in the Middle East for some years. Appreciating the history of our church with the Patriarchate of Antioch & All the East gaining insight through his correspondence with the Metropolitan of Beirut, Met. Jerome has continually tried to highlight the plight of Syrian Christians (where the Antiochian Patriarchate has its headquarters in Damascus) to churches in the West. In 2009, before the crisis in Syria escalated, Met. Jerome brought a Syrian refugee working as a Brighton taxi driver to a Churches Together in Central Brighton meeting to relay first-hand testimony about the plight of Christians in Syria from the rebel forces. For the past three years he has combined vacations with pilgrimages to visit the Middle East to appreciate the cultural tensions and encourage Christians living there. In March this year he visited Turkey where Christians are emigrating from religious tensions due to the crisis in Syria and addressed local Christians and pilgrims in the House of Mary at Ephesus.  In 2015 he was invited by Lord Laird of Artigarvan to be a keynote speaker in the House of Lords at a debate about the Syrian Refugee crisis and in recent years has been networking to provide Syrian Refugees in Brighton (declared a “City of Sanctuary”) a welcome, offering support and assistance in our city from various projects including “The Hub” and “Cherubs Kitchen” apostolates which he founded.

The event will be preceded by Hot Cross Buns and Coffee/Tea courtesy of the Salvation Army from 6pm, following a service of meditation from 4.30pm at which Canon White will give a devotional Good Friday reflection.