The View from St. George’s Church, Baghdad
by Canon Andrew White
As previously reported in American Diplomacy, Anglican Canon Andrew White, “The Vicar of Baghdad,” has long and successfully led the struggle for religious reconciliation in Iraq. On the eve of the withdrawal of U.S. combat units from Baghdad, he reported to those who support his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East how the Iraqis in his thriving congregation feel about life in the city. As in an earlier communication to American Diplomacy, he again urges the diplomats to maintain contact with Iraq’s religious leaders, who can make an important contribution to Iraq’s progress. – Col. (ret.) James A. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Contributing Editor
The other day, I sat down with some of the people at the St. George’s Church in Baghdad and asked them about life now and before the war. The young people do not really remember life before the war; for them, life has always been surrounded by soldiers, tanks, and police. As for the older people, they, of course, remember the days under Saddam – the fear, the torture, the inability to talk openly, the imprisonment and death of loved ones.
They all hoped that, with the change of 2003, there would be peace and freedom; their hopes have yet to be realized, and they see instead death, carnage, and terrorism on a scale not previously seen. I was in Iraq before the last war. I saw the fear of tyranny that masses lived under. It is so difficult to explain but the fear was tangible, back then.
It is impossible to get one view from Iraqis about the past and the present; each group is so divided. Whilst many rejoice about the removal of the previous regime, none rejoice about the present situation.
This week we see major changes taking place. The U.S. troops will be withdrawing to their bases, leaving major cities and ceasing combat missions. If this were to have happened several months ago, it would have caused very considerable instability. Today, the response is very different.
There has been considerable investment in the training of the Iraqi military and police, and local people are beginning to trust their own, Iraqi, forces. Not so long ago, the majority would have declared no trust in them, but today things are changing, and they are now seen as being more professional and competent. People can see that this change is due, at least in part, to the investment of the United States and the Coalition. This is very positive indeed.
The sad fact is that Iraq has not yet been restored. We hear talk of returning normality, but it is difficult to see this on the ground. It is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. It is still impossible for a non-Iraqi to walk down the road, to visit shops, or do the normal things of life. The normal provisions of life are scarce. Electricity is still a much sought-after but rare necessity. It is most unusual to have more than four hours of mains electricity each day. Water from the mains is also unreliable and certainly not drinkable.
Added to these immense difficulties we are also witnessing a major increase in violence. Last week alone there were major bombings in Baghdad and Kirkuk. Hundreds were killed and injured. Insurgent activity is again on the rise after a period of relative quiet for over a year. The returning fear amongst the people is tangible. Some hope that the reduction of the U.S. troops will also see a reduction of violence. Others are scared that violence may increase with the change in the role of the U.S. military.
There is another major fact that could also lead to the increase in violence: the cessation of engagement with the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq (HCRLI). The HCRLI is a unique gathering of Iraq’s most senior leaders that has been meeting together since 2007. They were brought together by me, and I have known some of the religious leaders for over 10 years. They consist of the most senior Sunni and Shia religious leaders, formerly avowed enemies, but now brought together through this process. Members of the High Council started as enemies; now they are more than friends, and they meet together informally between the regular meetings of the High Council.
Originally, the High Council of Religious Leaders began by dealing mainly with the issue of religious sectarianism and violence, and these people produced the first ever joint Sunni and Shia fatwa (religious declaration) against violence. Whilst this issue is still very much on their agenda, they are now also dealing with the broader issues regarding the rebuilding of the nation of Iraq. In our meeting of February 2009 it was decided their priorities should be:
1. The reduction of ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq;
2. Addressing the major issue of corruption;
3. Establishing adherence to the rule of law;
4. Engaging with the Iraqi and Coalition political leadership;
5. Ensuring a regular engagement in interreligious dialogue at an international level; and
6. The issue of Kurdistan.
This whole process was totally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, but that funding has now run out. We urgently need to find the funding to recommence these meetings, if lasting peace is to be found in Iraq.
The fact is that, here in Iraq, religious leaders have huge political significance. It is a sad fact that this is a place where religion has gone seriously wrong, and as Archbishop William Temple said, “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.” The diplomatic community continually fails to understand the significance of religious leadership in achieving a lasting peace in this region. We may want and believe in the separation of church and state in the West, but the reality is that here in the Middle East this does not happen. Here, religion can both cause and stop violence.
As the troops radically change their role we must engage with the religious leaders as well as the politicians. In the early days after the 2003 war, the Coalition forces failed to engage seriously with the religious leaders. We must not let this happen again; the results could be devastating.
Iraqis have a great history; they an intelligent people. The situation on the ground is awful now, but I still have hope that it will change for the better. For that to happen, religion must be part of the solution. If it isn’t part of the solution, it will continue to be the problem, and violence will not cease in this generation.
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 (http://www.frrme.org/). A principal recent aim 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.