It has to be one of the world’s longest commutes. The journey Canon Andrew White makes from his quiet, detached house in southern England to his parish in the walled compound in Baghdad is as much of a mental shift as it is a physical one.
Most of us don’t get to make the leap from the comfort of the living room sofa through the television screen to life inside the conflict zone. But for this 49-year-old, known to many as the “Vicar of Baghdad”, it is a way of life.
At his English home, where he spends at least one week every two months, White can move around freely, even though, as a multiple sclerosis sufferer, he chooses to mainly occupy just two rooms. It is so quiet in this Hampshire village you can hear birds sing, the rustle of leaves, the whirr of a lawnmower. Cottages open on to tree-lined streets and rose bushes adorn the gardens.
White has a penchant for flamboyant ties from Jermyn Street, and today is no exception: a big presence, he appears at his doorway dressed in a smart suit and a silk bow tie.
“I don’t like dressing like a priest all the time,” he says. “The thing is that in Iraq you have to wear your robes and your clerical gear. I come home and I get rid of it in England.”
In Iraq, he explains, his clerical dress helps to give him legitimacy in his mediation work, tackling sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. “There they respect you because they see you as one of them. You are part of the religious leadership.”
White has worked in Iraq since 1998, when he was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special Middle East envoy. At the time he was also Canon of Coventry Cathedral, and director of its department for international reconciliation, a job that took him from Northern Ireland to Israel and Nigeria. “It was a hugely formative time for me,” he says.
In recent years he has built up a good relationship with the Iraqi government, dealing with people on every level, be it grassroots, the business community, including the oil industry, or the army.
For all his moving around, his love for his family – his two boys, Jacob (14) and Josiah (16), his wife Caroline, and three children he has adopted during his time in Iraq, Dawood (23), Lina (20) and Fulla (19) – is apparent in the photographs and paintings around the house. However, Caroline and the children have only been to Iraq on a few occasions – it is a very separate life. “I couldn’t take them out there – it’s too dangerous,” he says. But even here in England the danger is still present – the police have moved his family out of the house on a few occasions when the threats to White were worst in Baghdad.
White leads the way to his study-cum-reception room, where a selection of crucifixes, many dating back hundreds of years, line the walls. “That’s the oldest one,” he says pointing to a tiny wooden cross. “It’s Byzantine. It’s 1,700 years old.”
Thumbing green worry beads in his large hands, he points to a stand covered with worry beads. “I collect them: it’s my new thing. They’re mostly from Iraq. They are called sibha and there are 99 beads on the Shia ones – that’s for the names of God in Arabic.”
White sinks back into a large brown leather sofa – against the backdrop of what he describes as his Christian wall. “I have my Christian wall, my Jewish wall and my Arab wall,” he says, pointing round the room to maps of Iraq, pictures of himself with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, together with Christian icons.
A framed photo of George W Bush stares out from the door in the middle, with a signed letter underneath it. “He wrote that to me the day before he left office to thank me for the book I sent him. He was a good person, I liked him.” Although White was a supporter of the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq, “what came afterwards was awful and there was no real planning,” he says. He was one of the only foreign civilians who stayed in Iraq throughout the worst of the insurgency in 2005-6.
When asked how he copes with people behaving at their worst amid the violence and chaos, he replies slowly: “What you do first, is you get them to listen to each other . . . And that’s a very long process. The American poet Longfellow said ‘Who is my enemy? It is the person whose story I have not heard’. So often we begin by just hearing each other’s stories.”
In 2003 White reopened St George’s church in Baghdad, a 1930s art deco structure, along with Justin Welby, now the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since then White has built up the complex that exists today – a church, health clinic, school and base for conflict mediation and food relief. The building has been hit by five bombs in the past five years, and parish visits are hazardous – White has to be escorted by 24 Iraqi security guards wherever he goes – but at least 6,000 Iraqis attend the church each week.
“Have you seen my medals?” White asks. In the corner of the room is a box brimming with silver, gold and bronze medals, in recognition of the 15 international peace prizes he has received. “They’re mostly American,” he says.
The door to White’s study opens and his assistant comes in with a tray laden with a majestic Persian tea set. “That tea set was given to John Major by the president of Kurdistan. Norma said, ‘There’s no way we are having that’, . . . so they gave it to the ambassador, and the ambassador gave it to me,” he laughs.
“I spend most of my time down this end of the house,” White says. “Because of the MS I feel quite tired. I have a room where I can lie down and work.” His struggle with multiple sclerosis has led to the development of a stem-cell treatment centre in the compound in Iraq, where he and other patients receive regular treatment.
“Dr Majid, my doctor in Baghdad, came to me one day and said, ‘You are getting worse. We need to get you better’. He said, ‘I’ve looked it up on Google and you need stem-cell treatment. It is all going to be from your own blood. It’s called haematology’. We now have over 3,700 patients we have treated.”
White has a background in medicine. His trained at St Thomas’s hospital in London where he qualified as an operating department practitioner. At one point he even worked alongside the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who used to work as an eye surgeon in London.
White’s conversion to Christianity in the 1980s was something of an epiphany, a call from God from which he has never looked back. However, perhaps it was from his medical training that he learnt to keep the hours he does.
“I process things on the go – think all the time; plan all the time; pray all the time. People go away on their retreats to quiet places and I used to do that, but now I couldn’t really work like that. I’m mahbul – a bit crazy,” he says pointing to his head.
As we move down the corridor to his resting room, he talks about his favourite Israeli artist, David Rakia. “This one is called The Glory of Jerusalem – it’s my favourite.” White has had a lengthy involvement with Israel, starting with his time studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem through to his successful mediation during the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. He also helped to draft the First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land following an interfaith summit in Egypt in 2002.
His resting room feels like a sacred space, almost like a chapel. There is a large armchair and a bed in the corner, while Israeli paintings line the walls, alongside a picture of White with former UK prime minister Tony Blair. His links to the British government have been strong throughout his time in the Middle East – White still briefs the UK’s Foreign Office on the security situation in Baghdad on most days.
Asked about his other home, at the compound in Baghdad, White offers a stark description. “There are barricades everywhere – razor wire . . . we have bombings, shootings and assassinations every day. You have to get through three checkpoints to get inside the compound. And I have one room. It is my dining room, my office, my bedroom and my meeting room,” he says.
White is tired now, so we move to get up, past the British Army anti-tank sign on the door. “Caution. Stay 100 metres back or you will be shot,” it reads. He strolls out slowly on to the grass verge, leaning on his adopted son, Dawood.
“I’m off to meet my wife for lunch now at a wonderful place – it’s a post office that’s been converted into a restaurant,” he says with his characteristic optimism. He climbs into the car and waves farewell. “Goodbye. Remember: don’t take care, take risks,” he says, as the car pulls away and disappears round the corner.
Serena Tarling is the FT’s deputy Europe news editor
“What’s my favourite object?” White asks his companions – his assistant,
Leslie, and his adopted son, Dawood – “I think it’s this coffee pot,” he says, pointing to a large Arabic pot amid his collection of books, worry beads and crucifixes.
“It was given to me for Father’s day by my son Josiah. He got it from the Cancer Research shop he is working in at weekends,” he says. Both his teenage sons are out but he talks fondly of them.
“Jacob and Yasser Arafat were particularly good friends,” he says proudly.
“Jacob once invited him to his birthday party when he was little.”
He points to a picture across the room of Jacob, aged three, donning Arafat’s customary headdress and beaming.