Outside the brick walls of St. George’s Anglican Church the concrete barriers, soldiers, and police with bomb detectors are a reminder, if anyone needed one, that, in Iraq, violence is never far away.
Inside, the Rev. Canon Andrew White has created an oasis of calm and support – and until recently an unlikely space for reconciliation. The Anglican priest from Coventry Cathedral in England first came to Baghdad amid rising tension between the West and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1998 as part of a mission to try to avert war.
When those efforts failed, he turned to reviving the abandoned Baghdad church, damaged by nearby bombing in the 1991 war and then looted in 2003.
As well as spiritual comfort, St. George’s now provides food and other assistance to nearly 5,000 Iraqis of all religions. It has also restored a sense of community that was one of the first victims of the religious violence in Iraq.
“I felt an immediate connection here,” says Mr. White, who, before he was withdrawn in October because of security threats, had spent more than half of every year in Iraq for the past decade. “When I first came here it was bad, and we thought it wouldn’t get worse. But it’s far worse now than it ever was in the old days.”
White says more than 1,000 of his parishioners have been killed in the past five years – most of them in bombings but some in targeted killings designed to terrorize Christians and other minorities and drive them out of their homes. An increasing number of those who are left are fleeing to Turkey or Jordan. But there are still hundreds of thousands of displaced Christians in desperate need of support.
On a recent Sunday, White officiated over evening mass – the church filled with Iraqi worshipers who had come from all across a city where the Christian population has dropped by more than half since the 2003 war that toppled Mr. Hussein. Women with traditional lace head scarves covering their hair stood next to teenage girls in T-shirts and tight jeans – part of the vanishing cultural freedom that had characterized Iraq for decades.