Working for Peace: An Anglican Priest in Baghdad

The legion of foreigners here includes soldiers, diplomats and contractors, but considering the religious overtones to so much of Iraq's strife, there are few outsiders toiling in the realm of faith itself. That's where British Anglican priest Andrew White comes in, with his soaring voice, blunt opinions and belief that a man of God can open doors closed to others in war.

White, president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, is currently working his clerical and political connections try to free five Britons kidnapped May 29 from a meeting at a Ministry of Finance office in Baghdad. At the same time, he is organizing a Pentagon-backed meeting of more than 40 Iraqi clerics to seek ways of calming the sectarian fighting. In both cases, White relies on long-standing relationships with those he calls "friends," including clerics who may or may not be inciting violence themselves. "You've got to know the landscape," he says in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "You've got to know the players, and you haven't just got to know them, you have to be their friend."

White, 42, was for eight years the envoy to the Middle East for the Anglican Church. The same job was previously held by Terry Waite, who was kidnapped and held five years as he tried to negotiate the release of Western hostages taken in Lebanon in the 1980s. Before the Iraq War, White worked from Jerusalem with clerics around the Middle East, forging principles and a clerical parallel to the peace process. Much of the work was at the height of the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. "We thought things were bad then," White quips, a reference to how Iraq's bloodshed is so much worse.

He says he has worked on more than 100 hostage cases, mostly in Iraq. He is also the Anglican priest for all Iraq and tends a Baghdad congregation of some 1,000 Iraqi Christians--mostly from other denominations. The kidnapping last week had a personal angle for White. He lives in a Green Zone compound for GardaWorld, a security firm that protects White, and it was four of their guards, personal acquaintances, who were kidnapped along with a British consultant to the finance ministry. An intensive Baghdad manhunt has been underway and is apparently aimed at Shiite militias, who are considered the most likely kidnappers.

White is burly and conspicuous in his black suits and preference for paisley bow ties and handkerchiefs. He walks on a cane, his balance unsteady with multiple sclerosis. "It's getting worse now," he allows, but he pushes himself on little sleep and through the searing heat. "People who were diagnosed with me, some of them have died. At least I haven't died. I haven't got time to die."

The meeting of religious figures this week--White asked to keep the location secret--is supported by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and will include diplomats. White said American officials have been slow to catch on to the potential for a religious track in pacifying Iraq. "A lot of what's going on here is religious in orientation and the thing about America, it talks all the time about its separation between church and state, but this is not America. We're in the middle of the Middle East," White said.

On most days, as gangs fight it out for control of neighborhoods and businesses, thugs grab hostages for ransom and insurgents fight to topple the government, religion seems like little more than a cover story for local power struggles and criminality. But when you posit that to White, he is characteristically adamant in his disagreement. "It's about religion gone wrong," he insists. "When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong. And these people think they're doing it in the name of their religion. That's the problem."