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Guest Blogger and Peacemaker Canon White: Life in Baghdad Continues to Be Awful and Wonderful

All the time I am asked why I still remain in Iraq.

Most of the Coalition staff have left, the violence is as bad as ever, if not worse, but I am still here.
I have no intention of leaving because these Iraqi people are now my people. I am their priest. As the violence increases, many of the remaining Christians have fled. I say to them: I am not leaving you; please don’t leave me.
For all the years I have been here, since 1998, I have been the only Anglican priest here, but this year everything changed. In September, the first ever Iraqi Anglican priest, Faiz Bashir, was ordained priest by our Bishop Michael Lewis, Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf. Even though I have had my colleague Faiz with me for many years as a layman, it is wonderful having him as a priest.
The past year has been so bad for Christians. A year ago, on 31st October, a very serious massacre took place in the neighbouring Syrian Catholic Church; 58 people were killed that Sunday afternoon, but that was only the beginning.
People were killed, tortured, kidnapped and maimed in the days following. My own director of security, an Iraqi Soldier, had his legs blown off by a bomb underneath his car near our Church. The warnings came thick and fast from an Al Qaida terrorist group. All Christians were warned to leave the country. The fear amongst many was very real and many fled to neighbouring countries or up North to Kurdistan.
It was clear that something urgently needed to be done. The violence and murder was being done in the name of religion. As the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “When religion goes wrong it goes very wrong”. Religion had indeed gone very wrong.
In these circumstances we realised that we needed the religious approach to solve these issues. The government may have increased security around the churches, but people were not being killed in the churches, but in their homes.
Spread over the whole of Iraq, they were being targeted in their places of residence because it is always known who the Christians are. We were seeing some of the worst targeting of Christians ever.
I have been the director of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq – a group made up of the most senior of religious leaders in the country, especially amongst the Sunni and Shia Muslims. We urgently needed to bring the group together out of the country to try and deal with this crisis. The original funding for this work came from the Pentagon, but that had stopped.
The Danish Government met our urgent need. They funded us in total and, by the end of January 2011, we were able to meet in Copenhagen.
We met together as Muslim and Christian religious leaders and discussed in depth the whole crisis. This though was not just about talking. We had to do something radical to bring about change.
On our penultimate day, the Islamic leaders decided they needed to do something only ever done once before and by the same group. That was to release a joint Sunni and Shia Fatwa (Islamic Injunction). This was done, providing a total Islamic banning of all killing of minorities.
Such Fatwas are binding to the majority of Muslims. Writing them is one thing but they must then be distributed to all the religious community lower down.
You also need to get the message out to those who are involved in such evil activity. When you are working for peace you cannot just work with the nice people, you have to work with those who are causing the violence.
A barrage of calls was made. The Fatwa was emailed to all the Islamic institutions and leaders. The day the Fatwa was released the violence and murders stopped in total. The government and various diplomatic missions in Baghdad could not believe that the effect had been so immediate.
Since then, the High Council has continued to keep meeting but what it has shown is religion must deal with religion. We need politicians and diplomats to wake up to the fact that much of the terrorist activity in the world today is religious and the best diplomacy in the world will never be able to deal with this – but there are a very few of us who can.
As we look at Iraq today, we see a nation still rent apart by violence and corruption; things are hard to describe, they are so awful. Life is still bomb barricades, razor wire and soldiers at every corner and totally surrounding us at the church where I live. Yet more could be achieved if only we would take seriously a totally different approach to deal with religion. So often, people say to me that religion is the cause of so many problems. I may be a religious leader, but I agree with this statement because:
“When religion goes wrong it does go very wrong.”
So I say that life in Baghdad is awful and wonderful.
I have shown what is awful, but what is wonderful? It is simply the people – and especially the children.
My congregation of over 4,000 is simply the most wonderful. They love me and I love them. So we have to meet all the needs of our people, giving each family food every week, running a huge clinic of doctors, dentists and a school all in our church compound – but not just for the Christians, but the whole community.
In our church, religion is right not wrong.

Peacemaker Canon White