by Canon Andrew P. B. White
When diplomats and politicians fear to discuss religion and focus solely on territory and borders, they overlook the importance of religion in the Middle East. Even leaders of liberal Western interfaith groups professing vague ecumenical principles lack credibility in a region where “orthodoxy is fundamental.” This essay reveals how a man of strong Christian faith helped Iraq’s most influential religious leaders agree upon a Fatwa (decree) condemning the sectarian violence that has long imperiled the search for peace in Iraq. Respecting the power of religion, he fought for a peace in which faith creates something beautiful rather than justifying death and destruction. – Contrib. Ed.
So many people present solutions to the various crises in the Middle East. So many people think they have solutions to the region’s manifold problems. The fact is that the Middle East does not have one problem. Those who think that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will solve all the problems of the region are very wrong. The conflict which caused havoc in Algeria had nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine issue. Neither does the conflict here in Iraq where I am. There are many problems in this region and the problems are not all about land, territory and occupation. A major cause of problems is that of religion. It was Archbishop William Temple who said: “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.” Religion has gone very wrong. There is so much destruction in the name of religion, and this is what the Bible tells us will happen in John 16:2-3:
“The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.”
This is what we are seeing with people who really think they are doing the work of the Almighty by killing another. Sadly, so many in the diplomatic/political world are scared of religion. They fail to realize the role that it has in much of the world. Those involved with interfaith matters are so often Western liberals who do not believe in much at all. When dealing with the type of people you find in the Middle East, these people have no credibility. Here, people believe and expect you to believe. Orthodoxy is fundamental. In the past few years, our work has concentrated increasingly on Iraq, and we have had to leave much in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This has been difficult, but a necessity.
Here in Iraq we have seen uncontrollable violence and death, the massacring of thousands of people by those doing it in God’s name, by those thinking they are doing ‘God’s work.’ And what is ‘God’s work?’ It is preventing the other from ultimately having power. So much terrorism is committed by people who feel they have lost something. In Iraq it is either land, territory, money, or influence. Ultimately it is the loss of power. Here we see that all feel they have lost. Either they have lost money in the de-Baathification process, or territory, or property, but ultimately they have lost power. They are not in charge, and whether Sunni or Shia, those who commit the violence no longer feel in control.
It is therefore essential that we work with people who can make a difference. At first I learnt from my mistakes. I tried the Western way of working from the bottom up and top down, but I soon learnt that those from the lower-ranking religious positions could not change anything. If you want to change things you have to concentrate on those who can bring about change. We formed the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. A criterion was established for people who could join this group – they had to fall into one of these four categories:
- Religious leaders with major influence and following
- Those with a major TV following
- Those with very significant political influence
- Those who represent those who have been involved in causing violence (terrorist groups such as Al Qaida can’t be worked with)
All of our delegates fall into one of these categories. So we have the chief of staff of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Iraqi Sunni sheik who is on TV daily, the chief religious advisor to the Prime Minister, and finally we have the chief spokesperson of Muqtada Al Sader’s Mahdi Army.
So the High Council is made up of Sunni and Shia leaders who all fall into one of the above categories. Initially this group was anti-American and anti-Coalition. Over the months of meeting, things have changed to the extent that they now say the Americans have given their country back to them. The Council also issued the first joint Fatwa (decree) that they produced together against all violence.
Below is a summary of the most recent declaration that they issued together:
- A strong demand for the unity of the Iraqi land, defense of the legitimacy of Iraq and its full independence, and an end to the foreign presence in the country.
- A resolute condemnation of organized criminal violence against the Iraqi Christians who form a genuine part of Iraqi society, plus a call for all the political parties, the official institutions, and the civil institutions to stand firmly against such criminal behavior and to work together to stop such inhumane activities.
- Despite there being positive indications of decline in the amount of sectarian tension, those present in the meeting emphasized the importance of spreading the spirit of forgiveness and of putting an end to sectarianism and discrimination using media channels and through all levels of education.
- Keeping arms in the hands of the State is the only way to ensure establishment of the State of Law. At the same time, pursuit of such a path will meet the demand of the Iraqis to build their state and secure common peace and communal life.
- It is so important to activate the general amnesty law, to secure as soon as possible the release of the innocent, to stop the arrests that have taken place outside the legal process, and to put an end to torture and any other actions that are against human rights.
- A strong condemnation of terrorism, regardless of the name or shape under which it is carried out.
It is a strong and excellent statement produced by the High Council of Religious Leaders. These people are people of influence who can bring about change. We all need to realize that all religion has power – either it can create something beautiful or destroy. In all this work I simply keep thinking of the words of Jesus to love your enemies. In Christ those you hate can become your friends and they do.
For more on Canon White and his work in Iraq, see our previous articles:
The Reverend Canon Andrew P. B. White, vicar of St. George’s, Iraq’s only remaining Anglican parish, has also long served a wider ministry on behalf of peace in the Middle East, currently as the president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. A principal recent aim, one supported by both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, has been the reconciliation of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations, which moved forward last year when the leaders of those two religious communities condemned sectarian murder.