Canon Andrew White is known as “the Bishop of Baghdad.” I first met him in 1999 when I made my initial trip to Iraq and visited St. George’s Church on Haifa Street in a city that was suffering even then.
|Bishop Andrew “abouna” White|
Andrew, who grew up in Bexley, in the suburbs of south-east London in Kent, England, has been serving St. George’s in the midst of circumstances that, frankly, would drive most clergy out of ministry altogether.
The church has repeatedly experienced damage from bomb attacks in its neighborhood, a few of which have specifically targeted St. George’s. Andrew has had to wear body armor and a helmet while being transported to and from the church building in an armored vehicle with armed guards during significant periods of his war-time tenure at the church.
At one point, all eleven of St. George’s Iraqi church staff were murdered, and only a handful of men were left as part of the congregation because most of them had been driven out of Baghdad (and, in some cases, out of Iraq) by threats made against them.
Andrew, himself, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, a condition that is apparent at times in his slightly slurred speech. However, never has his speech contained words of hatred, or self-pity, or expressions of a desire for revenge, or bitterness regarding the almost unimaginable circumstances under which he serves. Everyone in the community calls him “abouna,” Arabic for “father.” It is not just an ecclesiastical title. It is a way of addressing him with the love that people feel for him.
What has happened at St. George’s during a near decade of war is that a congregation of 2,000 has gathered out of need and a desire to serve others. Clinics providing various kinds of medical assistance, outreaches providing food for those unable to obtain it for themselves and their families in the violent city, educational programs for children, trauma counseling, a host of other life-sustaining services and, most of all, glorious worship of God are constant characteristics of life in this parish.
At Compassion Radio, we love this church and its pastor deeply. We have repeatedly provided financial aid and prayer support for it. It’s very satisfying to give to a ministry that so clearly reflects the heart and spirit of the living Christ and the good news that He calls His disciples to live out.
But the costs of discipleship in Baghdad are escalating seriously. In the past few days, the British Embassy in Baghdad and Iraqi Intelligence have contacted Canon White and informed him that they have uncovered specific plots to target St. George’s and destroy it. The threats obviously include targeting Andrew as well.
Threats against St. George’s and against Andrew are, of course, not new. But these threats are rooted, at least in part, in the announcement by a Gainesville, Florida pastor some weeks ago that he intended to burn copies of the Koran.
As Andrew puts it in a recent communiqué, “An army Colonel came to see me to announce that this is still linked to the threat of the Florida pastor to burn the Koran. The fact that it did not happen means nothing to the extremists here.”
There is something that we Americans acknowledge from time to time known as “the law of unintended consequences.” Clearly, that law is operating right now in relation to St. George’s. Actually, it’s been in operation in Baghdad and throughout Iraq for a long time. Its horrific effects stem from words and actions thoughtlessly and ignorantly expressed by people who ought to know better . . . people like the Gainesville, Florida pastor who announced his Koran-burning plan.
Did that pastor harbor a desire to trigger an attack on a courageous congregation in Baghdad? I doubt it. I’m not prepared to call him a bad man. I don’t think he is. But he is an unwise man, a foolish man. And his foolishness made public has produced dire unintended consequences for vulnerable brothers and sisters half-way around the globe. I must admit. That makes me angry and breaks my heart.
The Florida pastor is not alone in his foolishness. There is an attitude growing in our country, the United States, infecting even some evangelical Christians, that combines a dangerous mix of hubris and aggressiveness which incites unwarranted violence against innocent people. Though they’re reluctant to speak out publically, these victims quietly wish that we would (to put it bluntly) stifle our rhetoric and restrain our thoughtless behavior. They don’t need us to make their already difficult lives even tougher.
Tough talk sells in America . . . at least with a sizable segment of our population. Tough talk gets attention. It’s often regarded as a sign of courage. It’s even considered patriotic. But, however well the incendiary language may “play” to an American audience, it can be lethal overseas. I recall a prominent American Christian leader who used volatile language to describe Islam a few years ago. He was praised here at home for “telling it like it is.” His domestic popularity quotient soared. But I was in Afghanistan at the time, and his comments sent at-risk Afghan believers into hiding. Their perplexed response to his words was, “Doesn’t he realize that we’re going to pay a price for his remark?”
I truly doubt that he did realize it. But being clueless can bring the hammer down on those in already hazardous situations.
At this moment, thousands of Iraqi believers have been driven from their homes in one of the cradles of Christianity and are subsisting in places like Damascus and Amman. They are refugees because political expediency in the wake of 9-11 trumped a careful consideration of what a war of revenge would do to followers of Jesus in their ancient churches along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. American military leaders promised a campaign of “shock and awe!” Their words voiced an unwise sense of American invincibility. Some might call it arrogance.
That’s how the Iraqi Christian refugees we interviewed in Damascus heard it. The secular government maintained by the brutal Saddam Hussein was far from ideal, but it at least allowed these followers of Jesus to practice their faith securely in their homes and freely in their places of worship. There were no churches targeted for bombings back then.
Quiet conversions to Christ happened. I know. I recorded conversion testimonies for Compassion Radio listeners to hear. I remember a poster in the gift shop at St. Benham’s monastery near Mosul that read, “Iraq for Christ.” I photographed it and praised God for the evangelical spirit that was openly alive in that place. Bibles used to sell briskly at the Baghdad Book Fair. Not anymore.
Today, there is a real possibility that Christianity will be silenced and driven out of what is now officially called, since the war “The Islamic Republic of Iraq.” That’s a hard possibility to consider since Iraq is a place where there are physical remnants of a church building dating back to the second century, and from which, in the eighth century, the first Christian missionaries were sent to China.
Really, now . . . if advancing the gospel and seriously honoring our Christian heritage matter to us, what kind of “victory” have we achieved in Iraq at the cost of closed churches, a muzzled witness and disenfranchised disciples now on the run in foreign capitals? Not much, I would say.
I am not timid about suggesting that we American evangelicals, who for the most part have supported policies that have increased the risks faced by a now much-reduced Christian population in Iraq and complicated the lives of those scattered outside their homeland, owe something to these brothers and sisters in Iraq.
We might begin paying our debt to them by acknowledging that they exist. That seems fundamental, but it is rare in American churches. Then we might pray for them in some systematic way. Interceding for them during the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on November 14, 2010, would be a good time to start. Then we might seek out information about the dispersion of Iraqi Christian refugees, some of whom have relocated on our own doorsteps.
Compassion Radio has information about them, as do other organizations such as Open Doors USA and Voice of the Martyrs. A further step might be to provide some financial support for them. Again, Compassion Radio can help answer inquiries.
But this is not a pitch for Compassion Radio. It is a plea for an amplified awareness of the Body of Christ, and an active acknowledgement that the Lord of the Church has organically joined us to distant members in Iraq and other global locations. Just as we would speak and act carefully and sensitively concerning anything that affects our own precious children, siblings, spouses and other family members, so we should carefully consider that our words and deeds that have consequences for our spiritual family around the world.
What will happen to Andrew White and St. George’s Church in Baghdad? I don’t know. We do know that, ultimately, the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church. In the meantime, our verbal missiles and belligerent behavior can produce hellish consequences for Iraqi believers. That’s something they do not need. I’m confident that “abouna” White and his amazing congregation would agree.