(Photo: Reuters/Oleg Popov)
The affectionately named “Vicar of Baghdad”, Canon Andrew White, has been named as this year’s recipient of the prestigious International First Freedom Award for his extraordinary commitment to peace-keeping and religious freedom in Iraq.
Past winners include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999 for his efforts in the Northern Ireland peace process; former Czech President Václav Havel for his role in Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution; as well as three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Father Elias Chacour, founder of Israel’s Mar Elias Educational Institutions.
The awarded was announced by the First Freedom Center, an American institute existing to advance freedom of religion and conscience.
President of the center Ambassador Randolph Bell, said: “We are proud to name Canon White the winner of the International First Freedom Award. This prestigious award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the advancement of religious freedom – the freedom of conscience.
“The judging committee unanimously selected him because of all he has done to advance religious freedom; his longstanding and highly effective commitment to this fundamental human right.”
White upon hearing the news reacted in a characteristically modest fashion, saying: “I am truly touched and rather surprised to be awarded such a prestigious honor.
“To be considered a worthy recipient and to stand alongside such venerable past beneficiaries - me, a priest in downtown Baghdad - is just a wonderful honor,” he said.
The Vicar of Baghdad, as he is widely-known, has been a steady voice amidst violence and political upheaval that has engulfed and changed Iraq beyond recognition since 1998.
White has established himself as a central figure in political, diplomatic and religious circles trying to find solutions to violence and tensions in the Middle East country.
He has been the vicar of a 1,300-member St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad where he has shared in the struggles of the depleting Iraqi Christian population.
White is perhaps the most distinguished Christian working in the Middle-East, and has worked in close contact with the administrations of the U.S. and U.K. governments as well as Iraqi, Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. White has also been presented by the U.S. Supreme Military of the Order of the Knights of Jerusalem, their highest award – the Cross of Valor. He is the only recipient of this high honor in living history, for his extraordinary heroism beyond the call of duty involving personal hazard and danger and the voluntary risk of his own life for his compassion towards others in the region.
White has been an essential voice in explaining to the world exactly the situation and reality Christians in Baghdad and Iraq are finding themselves in. He has previously explained how Iraqi Christians have often been criticized and rebuked due to being associated with a “Western religion”. He has said, “Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the Christians are targeted (in Iraq) because they are seen as belonging to a Western religious tradition.
“It is seen as an immoral tradition. It is seen as a tradition that does not uphold values. It is seen as a tradition that does not uphold the respect for the kind of issues that the Islamic religion holds as very significant to them,” said the Anglican priest.
White has also highlighted how the entire thought process of culture and life in Iraq varies from that in the West. He has said that Mideast Muslims do not only consider the attitude of the church, but of the entire Western society as representing the Christian faith. He said in the Middle East there is no sense of distinction between religion and state. Therefore what happens in America is associated as being part of Christianity by Muslims in Iraq and beyond.
“It doesn’t happen in Iraq. You can’t separate religion and politics. Religion and politics are intrinsically related,” said White.
White’s contribution to the reconciliation process in Iraq has been testified as exemplary by political and religious leaders alike. The Director of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), Peter Marsden said, “Canon White has a unique ability to bring together people from across the sectarian divides for substantive and constructive dialogue.
“Through relationships forged of hard-earned trust, he is able to broker talks that have had lasting effects, especially on the violence against minority religious groups,” he said.
“This includes less well-known groups such as the Yazidis and the Mandeans, as well as the indigenous Christian minority,” Marsden added.
The director of FFRME, of which White is the president, continued saying: “Canon White’s friends and colleagues at FRRME are delighted that he has been honored with the International First Freedom Award. This award is a huge encouragement to us all as we travel the difficult and dangerous path towards freedom of conscience and religion in Iraq; a land riven with sectarian violence.
“While the situation in Iraq is much improved relative to the dark days of 2005-2007, sectarian violence in Iraq still costs the lives of more than 4,000 civilians every year. Nearly 300 still perish every month, with two fatal bombings in an average day.”
He concluded: “This award comes as welcome recognition for the work achieved thus far, but there is much still to be done.”
Canon White will be presented with the award in Virginia in January 2012.