By Hope A. Jones
Hope A. Jones ’08, a Government concentrator from Leverett House, graduates from Harvard College this year.
Ravaged by three wars in the last thirty years, Iraq—to some—seems beyond salvation. Religious terrorists across the country pose a grave threat to the country’s future. Sectarian violence, once political or territorial in nature, has become increasingly religious across the Middle East, from Algeria, to Gaza, to Pakistan. Against this deteriorating backdrop, religious violence in Iraq is not the exception, but the expression of a regional phenomenon of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.
Despite such a bleak outlook, there is an undercurrent of attempts at religious reconciliation in these same troubled countries. Brave Iraqi leaders have brought together key religious and secular figures, underscoring the importance of intra and inter-religious dialogue. Some religious leaders have renounced violence and pledged to work together for a peaceful Iraq. These peace-building efforts would not be possible without the presence of a mediator welcomed by all sides. As the vicar of Baghdad’s only Anglican parish, Canon Andrew White is exactly this kind of mediator. Over the past ten years, he has been in a unique position to develop a nuanced understanding of religious factionalism in Iraq, and his tireless work with the religious leaders of the country is a testament to the importance of mediation in any effort to stabilize war-torn Iraq.
Understanding Violence in Iraq
Religious conflict in Iraq is multifaceted in nature and cannot be fully separated from nationalist concerns. The well-documented Sunni-Shi’a tensions comprise one of several crosscutting religious conflicts in the country. Iraqi nationalist religious groups have battled radical Iranian Shi’a for control of Iraq while all moderate groups, Sunni and Shi’a, have fought back against Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq radicals. Furthermore, intra-Shi’a religious conflict has increased, as militias such as Sayyed al-Hakeem’s Badr Brigade and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have sought to dominate Iraqi political affairs.
Finally, Iraqi Christians, whose presence in Iraq dates back 2,000 years, have been persecuted and driven out by both Sunni and Shi’a extremists.  While the exact numbers are uncalculated, it is estimated that 600,000 of the 700,000 Christians in Iraq have been killed or displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.  Some have immigrated to Jordan and Syria and others have been displaced to the north of the country, leaving behind only poorer, less mobile families.  It is estimated that there are nearly 5 million Iraqi refugees, both outside and inside the country. 
Canon White’s Method of Mediation
Canon White presided over practical conflict resolution and prevention work in the Middle East peace process for the Anglican Church from 1998 until 2005. His work in Iraq began when he was invited by President Saddam Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister and close confidant Tariq Aziz in 1998.  From 2001 to 2003, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Representative to the Middle East,  the first to hold this position following the five-year imprisonment of his predecessor Terry Waite by Hezbollah.  Since the Coalition invasion, White has developed rescue aid initiatives, negotiated hostage releases, and brought previously hostile religious leaders together for compromise agreements.
The personal relationships he forged prior to the 2003 war have enabled him to engage Sunni and Shi’a religious leaders in the fight for peace and stability in Iraq. White’s work and positive results demonstrate the potential for Iraqis to work towards national reconciliation from the bottom up and to reduce the religiously sanctioned sectarian violence that has destroyed much of the country. He strongly believes that inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation in the Middle East “may well lead us into a complex engagement between different religious communities that in time could save the world.” 
Currently, Canon White is the President and CEO of the non-profit Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), the chaplain of St. Georges Church in Baghdad, and the Anglican and Episcopalian chaplain of the International Zone in Baghdad. He is also the coordinator and international director of the Iraqi Institute of Peace (IIP) and an advisor to the Iraqi National Security Council, acting as its liaison with Iraqi religious leaders. In 2005, he published a book entitled Iraq: Searching for Hope. He also wrote a previous book on Iraq in 2003 entitled Iraq, People of Hope, and Land of Despair.  Canon White couples his peacemaking with enormous relief efforts for Iraqi citizens, including Baghdad’s minority Christian and Jewish populations. He provides families with basic food provisions, creates spaces for children to play safely, ensures that young boys and girls receive lifesaving surgery, and provides widows with information on support services. He has also been responsible for humanitarian projects such as the establishment of Iraq’s first bone marrow transplant center. Canon White has received numerous international awards recognizing his work, including the International Council of Christians and Jews Prize for “Sustained Intellectual Contribution to Jewish Christian Relations.” In 2003, he was also made a Grand Commander of the Order of Merit of the Knights Templar of Jerusalem.
Building New Bridges
Canon White advocates political peace initiatives through religious reconciliation in the Middle East. He spearheaded the Alexandria Declaration, a pledge by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders to use their religious authority within their respective communities to work for peace and stop the bloodshed in the Holy Land.  Directing the initiative since 2002, White has played an active role in engaging Israeli and Palestinian leaders in reconciliation talks. In addition to being one of the main negotiators involved in resolving the siege of the Church of Nativity in the spring of 2002, he also was integral in resolving food shortages in Bethlehem, Beit Jallah, and Beit Sahour. In 2004, Canon White was responsible for bringing together twenty-six leading Palestinian clerics with prominent orthodox rabbis in Cairo. For many of the clerics this was the first time they had ever met a rabbi. 
Canon White’s interest in Iraq predates the 2003 American invasion. Starting in 1998, he visited Iraq frequently and acted as a mediator between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the West, while forging ties with many of Iraq’s most influential religious and political leaders.  In testimony before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom last year, he explained, “the whole mechanism of dealing with religious leaders is based on long-term relationships and an awareness of who they are and where they are coming from.”  Canon White believes that his presence in Iraq before the war “is the very reason I can engage with people now because they knew me before and have not just seen me as part of the coalition. From those days even amongst foreign religious leaders I am the only one still here and if I had not been in several years before the war I would not be trusted now.”  His close ties with religious leaders prior to the war has earned him legitimacy in the minds of many Iraqis, allowing him to avoid the “occupier” label with which many Iraqis designate American envoys.
The Need for a Trustworthy Mediator
Following the 2003 invasion, the United States and its allies failed to adequately anticipate the outbreak of sectarian and religious-based conflict in Iraq that would force so many of Iraq’s religious minorities out of the country. With the removal of Saddam Hussein’s iron fist, decades-long religious conflict between and within Sunni and Shi’a communities erupted. While Shi’as targeted Sunnis for revenge after many years of repression, Sunnis attacked Shi’as in ill-fated attempts to remain in power. Furthermore, explains White, Iraqi Christians are “bearing the brunt of any resentment over the invasion of Iraq by the ‘Crusaders’ of the West.”  Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, many Iraqis proclaimed the Ba’athist party line on Sunni and Shi’a Muslims—“we are all the same”—and there was a considerable degree of tolerance for Iraq’s Christian minority population. What once appeared to be a secular-minded population without serious or violent religious differences soon became a battlefield for sectarian violence and inter-religious brutality.  Some argue that by ignoring the need for religious harmony and reconciliation, U.S. forces unwittingly exacerbated the violence and deepened the divisions.
“If religion is the cause of much conflict,” White says, “it can also be the cure to it.”  In the words of the British Foreign Office, the commanders in charge wanted only “to sort out the basics such as water and electricity.” Because of the immediate need for basic infrastructure, “dealing with these other issues [such as religious tensions] came a long way down the list.”  From the outset, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) did not make any effort to reach out to Iraq’s religious constituencies, nor did they make the effort to establish relationships with the major Shi’a or Sunni religious leaders of Iraq who hold considerable influence over the Iraqi people.  Once it was realized that religious leaders needed to be consulted on the reconciliation between warring religious groups, the formation of a new Iraqi Constitution and government, the CPA had little knowledge of the network of religious leadership, particularly in the Iraqi Shi’a community that had been excluded from the previous regime. CPA officials also did not know whom to work with or trust when countless individual Iraqis came forward falsely claiming prominent standing and leadership within their religious communities in order to solicit US funding. The CPA accepted many of these claimants at face value and often ignored the true community leaders.
To the detriment of religious reconciliation, Sunni Muslims were excluded from the effort to establish a new constitution and government. The de-Baathification process was powered by the belief that Iraqi Sunni leaders were the equivalent of the leadership of Nazi Germany, so the CPA disbanded Iraq’s Sunni-led army, ignored the Sunni religious and tribal leaders, and denied pensions that Sunnis had earned over a lifetime of government service. Instead, the CPA concentrated on satisfying the majority Shi’a at the expense of creating a unified Iraqi government because they were seen as victims of the Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Reconciliation under Mediation
Early on, Canon White lobbied the CPA to engage in dialogue with all Iraqi religious leaders in the process of reconstruction.  Ignored at first, he continued his own discussions with religious leaders in an effort to bring them together. In 2004, after the CPA’s initial strategies proved ineffective, the Coalition asked Canon White to act as an intermediary between the Coalition leadership and Iraqi religious leaders in the drafting process of the Iraqi Constitution. His familiarity with the tribal divisions among Iraqi religious groups made him a unique advocate of reconciliation and reconstruction. 
In his earlier work with Shi’a and Sunni religious leaders, Canon White had been responsible for the establishment of the Iraqi Centre for Dialogue, Reconciliation, and Peace (later re-named the Iraqi Institute of Peace). He also drafted the original Baghdad Religious Accord that marked the first major meeting between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a leaders.  At the risk of his own personal safety, he has also been deeply involved in negotiating hostage releases. His foundation (FRRME) has become a leading mediator of hostage negotiations in Iraq and has the most successful track record of any entity. Canon White admits, however, that this is difficult work and that he is successful in far too few of these cases. He stated in his July 2007 testimony before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom that, “in the past month, thirty-six of my own congregation have been kidnapped. To date, only one has been returned.”  In the years since the Coalition invasion, Canon White and his negotiating team have left Iraq several times following the issuance of death threats against them.
Despite such setbacks, Canon White has seen an unprecedented response among Iraqi religious leaders to his efforts to develop the first joint Iraqi fatwa issued by major Sunni and Shi’a leaders, mandating an “end [to] terrorist violence, and to disband militia activity in order to build a civilized country and work within the framework of law.”  Religious leaders have met at conferences organized by Canon White, giving them the opportunity “to listen to and engage one another.” The conferences have attracted top Iraqi clerics including many members of the Iraqi parliament, advisors to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shi’a prelate in Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi militia, and equivalent Sunni and Kurdish figures.  According to journalist Robert McFarlane, they have shown a clear interest “in fostering reconciliation, and in the process, reducing violence, disarming the militias and enacting into law a framework for a fair distribution of political and economic power in Iraq.”  These conferences have taken place in Amman, Baghdad, Cairo, and Copenhagen, with several more scheduled before August 2008.  The aim of this initiative will be to isolate religious radicals, dampen intra-religious competition, allow conflicts of religious views to be solved through dialogue and, finally, quell religious warfare, thus allowing a state to emerge and once again operate effectively.
In addition to the issuance of a fatwa to end violence, those involved in the process are in discussions to establish a “council of wisemen” consisting of intellectuals, scholars, and clerics to form a common understanding for religious communities. This council will be facilitated by the Iraqi Inter-Religious Council (IIRC) steering committee. It will assist the transition of Iraqi society following the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops. The council will not be a part of the Iraqi government, but will be supported by all the religious elements of Iraq. Positions will rotate approximately every five years and include the most senior Iraqi religious and intellectual figures.
Participants in this process have noted the rise of sectarianism across the Muslim world. The joint fatwa will call for a reduction in tension, highlight the current work of reconciliation by IIRC, and issue a call for Iraqi sovereignty and freedom. Negotiators are planning another preparatory meeting including a more representative group from Sunni and Shi’a communities. The meeting is likely to discuss and develop the joint fatwa and expand reconciliation discussions to the wider Gulf region.
Canon White’s Unique Appeal to Muslims
White’s success in instigating intra-Muslim reconciliation is based on his pluralist understanding of the role and interaction of religion and religious traditions in the world. White is firmly grounded in his Christian faith, and he honestly acknowledges the violence and destruction that have sometimes occurred with the support, or tolerance, of fellow Christians. “I can never forget the fact that in the heart of Christian Europe the Holocaust recently took place with the clear support of many Christian lead,” he reflects. White also has a deep respect for other religious groups and their differences. His philosophy and respectful manner are fundamental to his success in encouraging the cooperation of people from diverse and different traditions. “They know they will not be threatened by us,” White reflects.
Setting his sights on the “reduction of religiously inspired violence and [capitalizing on] the willingness of religious leaders from varying backgrounds to work together,” Canon White is beginning to see results, but he admits that, “it has taken a lot longer than we originally thought it would.”  Nonetheless, he sees signs that people are willing to engage with each other not only to end extremist religious violence, but also to protect all communities of believers. He has enlisted Muslim support and protection for his Christian congregation in Baghdad. He explains that the only way his congregants are able to worship at St. Georges is because they “are taken there and looked after by the Iraqi army all of whom are Muslim, [and] the decision to enable this comes from Muslim political leaders.” Some leaders, such as Prime Minister Maliki, will even lend their office spaces as places of worship when it is too dangerous to hold services at St Georges. 
Canon White has pursued religious dialogue and reconciliation in Iraq against all odds. Fundamental to his work has been his ability to use his relationships with the Shi’a and Sunni religious leaders to maintain a dialogue aimed at reconciliation. His persistence in the face of distrust and bitter hostility between warring religious sects has encouraged other religious leaders to realize they too have to act to achieve reconciliation. He notes that “in order to move forward it is essential that [these groups] are given something that they have ‘lost’ back. This concept is fundamental to proceeding successfully.” 
Canon White’s role is one of a peacemaker. He says of Iraqi religious leaders: “In many respects it is just because I am a religious leader that they will deal with me.” His own devoutness makes him a more credible and respected mediator between religious leaders. He is a valuable mediator, trusted by both the Sunni and Shi’a communities which he has coaxed into dialogue and cooperation.
In today’s Middle East, there can be “no peace among the nations without peace among the religions,” White argues.  Canon Andrew White and his tireless mission to bring relief, stability, and reconciliation to a war-torn Iraq demonstrate that dialogue between battling religious groups can sometimes yield important successes. As a neutral mediator, White succeeded in forging a leadership group and promoting dialogue among religious leaders because of his fearlessness, his initiative, his philosophy of pluralism and respect, and his development of prior relationships with Iraqis. Canon White deserves an honor on the scale of the Nobel Peace Prize for his relentless work in dangerous and challenging times.
1. Andrew White, Iraq: Searching for Hope. (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 83.
2. Andrew White. Telephone Interview. 6 January 2008.
3. Andrew White. “An extraordinary message of hope and humanity from the dangerous parish of Baghdad.” Daily Mail: The Mail on Sunday. December, 22, 2007.
5. White 2007, 2.
6. Andrew White. Iraq: People of Promise, Land of Despair. (United Kingdom: Sovereign World Books, 2003), 9-10.
7. Jerry Jones. Personal Interview. 2 January 2008.
8. White 2007, 97.
9. The biographical information in this paragraph has been paraphrased from the Biography of Canon Andrew White provided by his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
10. White 2003, 9-10.
11. The biographical information in this paragraph has been paraphrased from the Biography of Canon Andrew White provided by his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
12. Andrew White. Telephone Interview. 6 January 2008.
13. Andrew White. “Testimony by The Reverend Canon Andrew White.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Public Hearing on “Threats to Iraq’s Communities of Antiquity.” 25 July 2007. Washington, DC. Russell Senate Office Building.
14. Andrew White. Telephone Interview. 6 January 2008.
15. White 2007, 21.
16. White 2007, 95-96.
17. White 2007, 83-84.
18. White 2007, 21.
19. Jerry Jones. Personal Interview. 2 January 2008.
20. Biography of Canon Andrew White provided by his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
21. Jerry Jones. Personal Interview. 2 January 2008.
22. Biography of Canon Andrew White provided by his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
23. White, Andrew. “Testimony by The Reverend Canon Andrew White.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Public Hearing on “Threats to Iraq’s Communities of Antiquity.” 25 July 2007. Washington, DC. Russell Senate Office Building.
24. Robert McFarlane. “A Fatwa Against Violence.” The Wall Street Journal. August 25, 2007.
25. Robert McFarlane. “The Iraqi Nation.” The Wall Street Journal. June 27, 2007.
26. Robert McFarlane. “The Iraqi Nation.” The Wall Street Journal. June 27, 2007.
27. Jerry Jones. Personal Interview. 2 January 2008.
28. Andrew White. Telephone Interview. 6 January 2008.
29. White 2007, 147.
30. Andrew White. Telephone Interview. 6 January 2008.
31. White 2007, 95.