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'Vicar of Baghdad' recounts Christian persecution at hands of ISIS

SALT LAKE CITY — As one of the foremost Christian leaders in Iraq for nearly two decades, Rev. Canon Andrew White is all too familiar with the wave of crises that has hit the country.

But even Rev. White, who was until last year the leader of one of the largest Christian churches in that country and is widely known as the "Vicar of Baghdad," never could have foreseen the naked terror oppressed Christians there now experience at the hands of ISIS terrorists.

"It is happening now in our midst and the persecution of Christians is like we'd never expect would happen," he told several dozen gathered at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Mark on Monday. "All I know is we are not (ceasing) to love Jesus. We are still serving him."

Rev. White presented his lecture in concurrence with the 78th general convention of the Episcopal Church, being held this month in Salt Lake City, and focused his remarks on the need for absolute reliance on Jesus Christ in the darkest of times. White was vicar of St. George's Church in Baghdad until November 2014, when he fled the country at the behest of the Anglican church because of safety concerns.

"We have been through the most horrendous experience," he said, bluntly. "Most horrendous. But in everything, God is with us."

Christianity in Iraq, which dates back to 35 A.D., is being threatened with brutality on the part of brazen terrorists, he said. Some members of his congregation, which once included U.S. CIA Director David Petraeus, have been killed by ISIS militants. Christian children have been killed, Rev. White said, for declining to declare their allegiance to radical Islam.

One of Rev. White's congregants summed up the faith of Iraqi Christians, he said, when they told him: "When you've lost everything, Jesus is all you've got left."

"The fact that Jesus loves us is what keeps us going," Rev. White said.

Rev. White, originally from England, is the current president of Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East despite relocating from Iraq. The Baghdad-based group is dedicated to fostering cooperation among different religions in the region/Middle East, particularly in disputes with a religious element.

The organization also supports Christians in the Middle East with schools, clinics and humanitarian relief. Rev. White directed the creation of schools in Israel, Jordan and Iraq. However, he said, the sheer numbers of Christian refugees from Iraq — numbering in the hundreds of thousands — have placed a strain on the organization. The foundation's costs have ballooned from $500,000 per year to nearly $1 million per month, Rev. White said.

He added that during Baghdad's most violent times in recent years, Christians fled the country's capital to take up residence in Ninevah, which had been a Christian stronghold for many centuries.

"That was the precise area where they were targeted and slaughtered" by ISIS, he said.

Rev. White, who began living in Baghdad in 1998, also said the Iraq war has been disastrous for the people there. He said he originally supported the war because of Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime, but soon regretted it.

"I was wrong. We are in a far worse state now than we ever were under Saddam," he said. "Now, we have nothing. Now, we can't even walk down the street."

Christians in Iraq live in fear of retaliation and brutality constantly, Rev. White said.

"They’re all petrified. They’re all desperate. They all think they have no future,” he said.

Rev. White praised the efforts of Jewish and Mormon groups, who he said offered assistance for persecuted Christians when other help was rare.

“They were with us when things were really bad and nobody else was with us,” he said.

Rev. White has interacted quite a bit with Jews and Latter-day Saints in the area, he said. Jewish leaders in Israel allowed him to build a Christian clinic on their property and he has given lectures at BYU Jerusalem.

Email: blockhart@deseretnews.com

Twitter: benlockhartnews