As a fervent religious leader in Iraq, he has been kidnapped, robbed, hijacked, and has received countless death threats over the years. As a British Christian with Multiple Sclerosis, Canon White lives amid the sectarian violence other Westerners only read about, and calls leading Shiite, Sunni, and other Iraqi leaders his close friends in the struggle to end the conflict.
For the last ten years, the Anglican vicar, activist, and scholar has dedicated his life to reconciliation in the Middle East by focusing on the positive role religion can play in resolving conflicts. Living in a constant state of risk, he negotiates the release of hostages, forges relations among key religious leaders, brings forth important peace agreements, and provides desperately needed food and shelter to victims of violence. Today known as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” his religious calling has brought his critical peacemaking efforts to Iraq.
Canon White quickly became involved in initiating several religious peace tracks in the region as the Special Envoy to the Middle East for the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1998 he took his first trip to Iraq. When the current war began, he adamantly warned the international diplomatic community to take religion into consideration when planning the postwar reconstruction. And today he works with the results of their failure to do so.
As the CEO and President of the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East, as well as the initiator of the Iraqi Institute of Peace and the priest of the Anglican Church in Baghdad, Canon White operates with the belief that all political peace tracks require a corresponding religious track to ensure any lasting peace. He averages about ten meetings a day with Iraqi political and religious leaders, top members of the U.S. led coalition, and grassroots organizations to forge constructive communication between the various local factions. He is currently trying to organize a conference of Iraq’s top religious leaders, an initiative that faces the basic challenges of finding a neutral and secure location, and funding.
Canon White couples his peacemaking with enormous relief efforts for ordinary Iraqis – including supporting families with basic provisions of food, creating spaces for children to safely play and grow, ensuring young girls and boys receive lifesaving surgery, and providing widows with the support they need to keep their families alive.
Canon White has also done significant work in Israel and Palestine, where he once negotiated the release of hostages and in 2002 helped mediate an end to the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. That same year, Canon White’s efforts to engage religious leaders in Israel and Palestine succeeded with the historic signing of the Alexandria Declaration, a pledge in which Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders agreed to use their religious authority within their respective communities to work for peace in the region. Today, he continues to pursue the Alexandria peace process with religious leaders, as well as provide much needed relief to Palestinians through the provision of food, shelter, fees for schooling, and medicine for chronically ill children.
Although diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, his physical symptoms have hardly slowed him down. As he explains, “If I stop, I feel ill. So I keep going.” The mental strain is more difficult, however, with the loss of many of his close friends and colleagues due to the violence, in addition to his own life being in constant danger. The strength to continue comes from his deep faith, as well as his love and respect or the people of the Middle East. In Canon White’s own words:
“Does the death and destruction of these people really not matter? The pain is great, the anger is great and I am convinced more than ever that the only way forward is to talk. This too is difficult, painful and not without risks but if it only saves one life it is worth it.”