BAGHDAD—Sunday morning dawns bright, glaring bright, at St. George’s Church in Baghdad. In April daytime temperatures regularly climb to 100 degrees, but mornings and evenings are on the cool side, the air breezy and soft. Outside the church a rose garden is in full bloom—red, coral, yellow, white, and pink blossoms massed in border shrubs. Along one side of the garden is nothing but hedge, a thick, high wall of green giving a little shade and relief in the late afternoon. You have to stand close to see that the hedge is hiding a blast wall—concrete about 6 inches thick and 12 feet high runs the perimeter of the church property.
The front steps of St. George’s used to open onto a two-lane street with steady but subdued traffic in an area of government buildings. Anyone was welcome to enjoy the garden. That all changed when suicide bombers and insurgent fighters began targeting St. George’s and other churches in Baghdad shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In 2005 five members of the church leadership disappeared—all presumed killed returning by car across the desert from a pastors’ meeting in Amman, Jordan. Bombings and rocket launches by terrorists multiplied—in 2005, 2007, and notably in 2009, when a bomb detonated near the church killed 100, injured hundreds more, and damaged every building on the property. To survive, St. George’s today sits surrounded by the concrete blast walls, and two checkpoints manned by a swarm of Iraqi soldiers have to be navigated before arriving at a fortified gate that can only be opened from the inside.
When U.S. troops made their final withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, many Americans thought the war had ended. But for most Iraqis, the terror that began with the U.S. arrival in 2003 has never stopped. Civilian deaths, in fact, currently are running at their highest level since the height of the U.S.-led war. The UN reported 8,868 casualties from insurgent-led attacks in 2013, the highest death toll since 2008. Sadly, the 2014 toll is keeping pace, with over 2,200 deaths reported in the first three months of the year.
The run-up to Iraq’s first national election following the U.S. withdrawal, scheduled for April 30, coincided with new aggression from foreign fighters spilling from neighboring Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the new brand of al-Qaeda in Iraq, took over the city of Fallujah in January, and by April was making gains against Iraqi forces in Ramadi, just 80 miles from Baghdad. Overall, disgruntled Sunni militants are determined to undermine the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
‘You are my people, in my beloved Iraq, and I am so glad to be back with you.’—Canon Andrew White
Christians continue to be targets. Three bombs on Christmas Day 2013 targeted Christian neighborhoods and a church in Baghdad, killing 37 and wounding 59. This year a car bomb near St. George’s in February killed two close associates of the church, shopkeepers who helped with supplies. Also that month, a car bombing along a main thoroughfare in central Baghdad’s Karada district killed a man who had attended the church, along with three others.
“We are all in such a desperate situation and all we have is our Lord and each other,” said Canon Andrew White, the British clergyman at St. George’s who improbably has come to be known as “the vicar of Baghdad.”
WHITE, WHO TURNS 50 this year, towers over the Iraqis he serves at 6 feet 3 inches and in size 16 shoes—yet he approaches his parishioners like a teddy bear. Children especially, but women and men also, get hugs as he greets each at the church doorway.
The mutual affection is surprising, considering that White does not speak Arabic. Communication happens through a translator, apart from what few greetings he manages in Arabic, plus prayers White can recite along with the congregation in Aramaic (not only the language of Jesus Christ but also the language of the Assyrians who made up Iraq’s earliest Christian community). With enthusiasm White tells the congregation the first Sunday in April, after several weeks of traveling overseas, “You are my people, in my beloved Iraq, and I am so glad to be back with you.”
Given the risks outside St. George’s blast walls, what’s surprising also is to see Iraqis arriving at the church by busloads for a Sunday afternoon worship service. Sunday in Baghdad is a workday, and most churches hold services at 5 p.m. The congregants stream in from neighborhoods nearby and across the Tigris River. Men talk on the sidewalk leading into the sanctuary, while women gather in knots of conversation in the rose garden, some in dark head coverings, Muslims who’ve come to collect a food ration but will hear what’s being taught at St. George’s along the way.
White spent time in Iraq before the war as director of the International Centre for Reconciliation based at Coventry Cathedral in England. From that post he supervised the reopening of St. George’s, which Saddam Hussein had closed when he invaded Kuwait in 1991.
White worked with local Iraqi lay leaders and Col. Frank Wismer, a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain (and Episcopal priest) then serving in Baghdad. They cleaned up the looted and decrepit St. George’s and started services there in 2003. When I visited at that time, congregants filled plastic chairs over a bare floor as sound ricocheted off the tall byzantine walls. Today congregants fill wooden pews—made by a carpenter who used to work for Saddam—and both altar and baptistery have been restored.
When the church’s Iraqi lay leadership disappeared, White took up what for most people would be a full-time role as the church’s rector, leaving behind for most weeks of the year his wife of now 23 years and 2 teenage sons. When he does travel back to England and elsewhere, the church has an Anglican-ordained Iraqi curate, Faiz Jerjees.
White also serves as president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, a U.K.-based relief group (with offices also in the United States) that helps to fund the work at St. George’s, which includes a medical clinic, library, kindergarten, and a food distribution program that serves 500 families twice a month. The foundation also supports other Christian ministries in Baghdad, as well as reconciliation work among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clergy across the region.
The Baghdad vicar maintains the roles of pastor, teacher, relief director, reconciler, worldwide speaker, and fundraiser—all while managing a 17-year battle with multiple sclerosis. When his Anglican overseers in England learned he had MS, they wanted to sideline him: “The Church of England doctors said I was not well enough to be a clergyman in the Church of England—so I went to Baghdad.”
Over time MS has slowed White’s speech and made it hard to stand very long without assistance. White uses a cane on visits to church families or to see other clergy in Baghdad, and often sits while giving sermons. Ironically, he says the best treatment he’s received has been in Iraq, where he is able to undergo treatment using his own stem cells that’s not yet approved in England or the United States.
Little about the disease holds him back: In Baghdad it takes four cell phones to keep him going—two for calls inside Iraq, an international phone for daily calls to his wife and mother, and a Truphone for any others. When I ask White how he manages jet lag, he says flatly: “I don’t do jet lag. Wherever I am I live in the hours the day holds.”
White arrived in the States to accept in May the 2014 Wilberforce Award given by the Virginia-based Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He had never heard of the award when he first learned he was its recipient, but it brings much of his life’s work full circle. Before Coventry, White served in Clapham, where Wilberforce and others formed their community that ultimately provoked England to abolish the slave trade. “Wilberforce used to live on the street where the church is, and I used to walk past his house every day,” said White. “The table we used to serve from is where the Clapham group met.”
WHITE IS KEENLY AWARE of the losses in Iraq that make such awards possible. At its peak after St. George’s reopened, over 800 people attended Sunday worship services, often spilling into the garden. The Sunday I attended in April, the church had about 300 worshippers. Most of the attrition is from Iraqi Christians moving overseas or to the north, where Kurdish regions are safer. But White says that about 1,000 in his congregation have died in violence during the last five years.
Everyone in the church has his or her own sorrow. Najat Yacoub showed me photos of her son, bleeding from fatal neck and facial wounds, shortly after he was gunned down in the street outside their home in 2007. Insurgents kidnapped Dawlat Abouna’s sister—twice—and each time the family paid ransom to free her. And a young man who works as a driver for the church (not named for security reasons) watched as his friends died in Baghdad’s streets, then himself received threats while working for a British military contractor. He escaped north in the trunk of his uncle’s car one night, and stayed out of Baghdad four years.
Where death and danger haven’t taken a toll, separation has. St. George’s has children abandoned by parents who fled the country. And aging parents whose children have all emigrated to Canada or the United States. In a country where tight-knit families are a given—in fact, most parents live with their grown children—the rupture is traumatic. That’s especially true in the Christian community, where numbers are dropping fast.
IN 2000 CHRISTIANS MADE up 26 percent of the population in the Middle East. Today they form less than 10 percent of the region’s population. Iraq had an estimated 1.2 million Christians before 2003, and by White’s and others’ estimates has possibly as few as 200,000 Christians now (Operation World in 2010 estimated the Christian population at 500,000).
Militant Islam arrived long before the U.S.-led war, but there’s no question that the ouster of Saddam Hussein—and the inability of the United States, its coalition partners, or any elected Iraqi government since that time to blunt the reach of jihadi-driven terrorists here—has been a major turning point hastening the rate of Christianity’s decline across the region, from Syria and Lebanon to Iraq and Egypt. Experts contemplate that, barring some reversal, Christianity may not survive beyond midcentury in the region of its birth.
‘It’s only a matter of time, 30 years, and no Christians will remain in the whole region.’—Avak Asadourian
“It’s only a matter of time, 30 years, and no Christians will remain in the whole region,” Avak Asadourian, the archbishop of the Armenian Church in Iraq, told me. Asadourian has been primate over the Armenian Church here since 1982, when it numbered about 40,000. At the start of the Iraq war the numbers had fallen to 18,000, and now they are less than 10,000.
“I used to say to parishioners, ‘don’t leave,’ but I can’t say that any more,” said Asadourian. “It would be on my conscience if something happened to them.”
Other churches experience losses too. The Christian Missionary Alliance Church, the largest evangelical congregation, opened in Baghdad just after the 2003 invasion and grew to over 1,000 members. But as insurgency took hold of the community, members fled Baghdad, several pastors were kidnapped, and the church itself was bombed in 2009. At one point pastor Ghassan Thomas was assisting 1,000 families who sought shelter in churches to escape threats left under their doors and regular bombings and shootings. Thomas sent his own young children to school with pajamas in their backpacks because—he told me then—“we never know if it will be safe enough for them to return home.”
Thomas himself received threats and left for Turkey, planting a church for Iraqi refugees there before emigrating to Australia last year. Today the CMA church has about 250 in attendance, according to its current pastor, Joseph Francis. A women’s meeting I attended Saturday evening was warm, but sparsely attended. The CMA church, too, sits behind blast walls now, but inside the congregation has built a coffee shop, classrooms, and a courtyard with date palms for outdoor gatherings.
Many Iraqis told me that anyone with the means to leave wants to emigrate. But at every church I met Christians determined to stay. “I want to stay all my life,” said Mudafar Yousif, an assistant pastor at the CMA church. “I love my country, and I covenant with the Lord to serve Iraq. I love Baghdad, and I am sure if He wants me here He will keep me safe.”
Yousif was forced out of Iraq under Saddam’s rule but returned from Jordan in 2003. He and his wife have raised two girls, one now in her third year of university-level pharmacy training and another in 10th grade, living in mostly Muslim neighborhoods throughout the war. He is sober about the dangers they face—his older daughter narrowly missed a bomb explosion while waiting to go to school—but also sober about the reality of leaving home. “We hear that people are suffering [in the West] too. The life is very different for us there. And a doctor must work as a gas station attendant.”
AT ST. GEORGE'S ON SUNDAY evening the air turns soft again and women serve sandwiches and sodas from a large cardboard box on a lawn that’s still abuzz with talk and children’s horseplay long after dark. Outside the blast walls the Muslim call to prayer goes up, melodious but enveloping all other sound.
It’s a metaphor for the life of Iraqi Christians, especially facing another round of elections that will once again reinforce how marginalized they are in the political process. “Did we ever need democracy here?” asks Canon White. “No, democracy is dangerous. What we have is various groups holding power who hate each other.”
When White first moved to Baghdad he lived in a trailer not far from the church in the U.S.-protected Green Zone. “In the old days I used to walk down here in the evening. Now, you cannot walk the streets.”
The British opened St. George’s in 1936 as a memorial to the British dead of the Mesopotamia campaign of World War I. Iraq by then had become an independent state, but remained heavily dependent on the British and would be reoccupied by them during World War II.
In that period came a form of emancipation for Iraq’s Christians and Jews, who for the first time since Ottoman rule, which began in the 1500s, became full citizens alongside Muslims. The British abolished their dhimmi status, and King Faisal I, the country’s ruler from 1921 to 1933, declared: “There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims and Christians in the terminology of patriotism, there is simply a country called Iraq and all are Iraqis.”
Each Sunday St. George’s filled with Anglican believers from the Commonwealth stationed in Iraq. Christians comprised nearly one-fifth of the city population. At the same time, Jews made up one-third of Baghdad’s population (about 120,000). Iraq’s first minister of finance was Jewish, and Hebrew was listed as one of the country’s official languages. But winds of dark change were blowing—chiefly, rising Arab nationalism and toxic Nazi sympathies.
With the end of World War II and the creation of a modern Jewish state in Israel, Iraq’s Jewish community, once the largest and most prosperous ethnic group in Iraq, was targeted for extinction. Jews were forced out—or crushed, their business and property confiscated, and many killed.
By 2004 only 35 Jews lived in Baghdad and the city’s remaining synagogue was shuttered. Ten years later in Baghdad there are six Jews. They live scattered throughout the city and are discreet about their identity. Baghdad’s Christian residents take the decline of the Jews to heart, as they’ve watched their own numbers halved since the start of the 2003 war. St. George’s Church supports the remaining Jews, and Canon Andrew White makes regular visits with them. —M.B.