Hope & Tragedy

Hope & Tragedy  - post Iftar meeting 27 July 2013

In the past few days we have again seen the way that hope and tragedy go hand-in-hand in this country.  We were able to hold a large iftar followed by a reconciliation meeting on Saturday night with many of the key Sheikhs from both the Sunni and Shia communities, as well as our own Bishop Michael from Cyprus. Many of these leaders were new to these peace and reconciliation meetings and were eager to be involved in this process. The meeting was a success and saw the Sunni and Shia leaders praying together and then discussing together how they can help stop the violence. There was a very firm commitment to join in the reconciliation work, and to attend future meetings.

Hope & Tragedy  - post Iftar meeting 27 July 2013

From the hope of that meeting we then moved on to this morning when there were at least 10 car bombs set off in Baghdad alone. The total amount of casualties is as yet unknown, but the targets seem to be primarily Shia areas. This is the type of sectarianism that is trying to rip this country apart. This violence also follows a major prison break last week. Roughly 500 prisoners escaped from two different prisons, and some reports say 4 top al-Qaeda leaders escaped as well. Whether or not they were directly involved in planning the bombings today has yet to be proven, but it is consistent with the goals of al-Qaeda to attack Shia areas. Despite this danger and turmoil we persevere on with the work of reconciliation and peace. We are very hopefully that the coming months will see some major conferences, which will lead to tangible change here.

With every blessing,

Canon Andrew White - the Vicar of Baghdad

Sunni and Shia Islam – Division and Violence

This is a really long post so only read it if you are really interested in this issue.

A large amount of my work now days is concerned with reconciliation between Shia (Arabic: شيعة‎, Shīʿah) and Sunnī (Classical Arabic: سُنِّي /ˈsunniː/) muslims. The conflict between the two has been widely publicized in the media. Yet the vast majority of people do not even know what the differences are between these two are. I therefore want to go into significant detail about these two major strands of Islam so that people understand the fundamentals of this issue.

In Christian terms the difference can be seen like the difference between Catholic and Protestant – two strands with the same creeds. They used to kill each other regularly not so long ago and sadly we have seen similar violence and murder between Sunni and Shia. Both are Muslims who fundamentally share the same Islamic beliefs. Their differences are not primarily theological but historical. They date back to the very beginning of Islam regarding who would take over from Mohammed. Over the years several different practices and have developed and these in turn are seen as carrying certain spiritual implications.

The separation dates back to the death of Mohamed. Who was going to take over from him? There were those who thought that the leadership of Islam should be placed under the controls of the companions of Mohamed who were proven capable leaders. There were twelve people who were seen as the right leader team and they became known as the Caliphs. Those who held to this position gave birth to the group that became known as the Sunnis. They where originally lead by one called Abu Bakr. Whom along with Imar, Aisha does the Shea reject. As is much of they’re etching about Mohamed. The Sunni see themselves as orthodox traditional Muslims. This diversity results in a considerable difference in practice on prayer, pilgrimage and fasting. The word Sunni comes from “Hal al–Sunna” which literally means the people of the tradition. They see that their tradition is closer to Mohamed and the prophets mentioned in the Koran. Though Mohamed seen as the final prophet is seen as the ultimate and there are not seen as key people such as Imam Ali and Husain to the Shea. Such leaders after Mohammed are all seen as being merely temporal. The Sunni have also traditionally come under state control, whilst in reality in countries such as Iraq and Iran the Shea clerics are the real ultimate authority.

This results in a major difference in practice between Sunni and Shia. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni (about 85%) therefore Shia are a minority but the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. The major division is about the issue of hereditary leadership passed through the hereditary line from Mohammed through his son in law Imam Ali.

Thus the Shia believe in a hereditary leadership believing the rule of Allah passed through a particular line. Ultimate in their beliefs is in the historic Imams. They are seen as being sinless in their very essence, with total authority coming from Allah. The historic Imam’s are venerated like saints and their tombs are venerated as shrines. Pilgrimage to these shrines is a very regular occurrence. This group did not look to the original three caliphs but to Imam Ali. He was both the Cousin and Son in Law of Mohamed. He was seen as the rightful heir of Mohamed and those who follow this tradition are the Shia. A great significance is based on the whole issue of linage to Imam Ali. Anybody in his line is called a Sayed (Sir) and to this day all the Imams of this lineage wear a black rather than white turban.

Shia Islam is not known about much in the West. They are often referred to as Shia Militia and known as the militants who control Iran and have carried out negative activity in Lebanon. The fact is that the majority of Shia are a peaceful and wonderful people. Our relationship to them is particularly very close. Shia Islam is very hierarchical, orders are passed down from the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani based in Najaf a very holy Shia City in the South of Iraq where Imam Ali is buried and has his shrine. The grand Ayatollah is surrounded by the Majoria the other four Grand Ayatollah’s who are next in line to Ali Al Sistani.

When there was a particular onslaught against the Christians in Iraq the Shia offered the Christians sanctuary and protection. The general feeling amongst the Christians is that the Shia will protect them. Most of the recent attacks on Christians have been from a very small section of the Sunni.


Reconciliation between Shia and Sunni is key in Iraq. The extremists are in both groups. Their divide dates back over 1000 years but it is greater than ever. Much of our work has been bringing these two strands of Islam that have been so much against each other because of their years of difference. It is the leaders of these groups that listened to each other over two years and became best friends with each other. It is this group that we have remained close friends of. They trust us and we love and give to them and at one level it is working.

The fact is that much if the violence is caused by the Sunni extremists. Many of these are linked to the Whabbi and Salafi movements that come out of Saudi Arabia. Included in this group is Al Qaida and those connected to them. At a previous meeting of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq after a major massacre of Christians a joint fatwa (religious injunction) was issued by both the Shia and Sunni together. This was a major sign of reconciliation and it was done to protect the minorities from murder. The Fatwa worked immediately and no Christian has been killed from that day. This is a wonderful example of how reconciliation saves lives.

I get very frustrated when I hear that what is simply needed is advocacy with governments, diplomats and foreign ministries. These people can do nothing about such crisis but they can put pressure on governments to support organizations like ours to fund their engagement on such work. We were very fortunate the Danish Government came up quickly with all the funds to support our engagement. Providing all the security in the world would not provide the security needed. What made the difference was that the very people we were dealing new the people committing the violence. They could put pressure on their people to observe the Fatwa and stop their evil ways. What came out of this meeting was complex intelligence so I cannot share it all here but we then managed to have a very productive meeting between all the relevant coalition ambassadors and our delegates. One thing I can mention is how these terrorist cells are training and using children to be suicide bombers.

An organization exists called the “Birds of Paradise”. This is an evil Sunni terrorist group that teaches children between the ages of 7 and 12 to be suicide bombers. The belief being that they are less likely to be caught by security. The effect is horrendous. Many innocent people are killed and maimed. This group is very closely linked to Al Qaida and is very closely linked to the terrorism we are seeing today.

The Battle for Power (the Sunni Loss of Power)

Much more could be written on the cause of terrorism but ultimately it can be summed up in two words Loss and Power. Wherever there is terrorism ultimately you will find that the perpetrators feel that they have been involved in serious loss. As regards the Sunni terrorists they feel that since 2003 they have experienced major loss in all the follow areas:

  • Property
  • Business
  • Money
  • Political Influence
  • and ultimately Power

We may be able to see that ultimately the events are caused by the process of debathfication but the effects are the loss of all of the above. The result is the ultimate loss of power. Ultimately the ruling minority has lost their power because of democracy. The result is that there is a minority within the minority who feel that the only way to maintain their power is to fight for it. Even if they cannot regain their power they can at least show their level of force within their minority group by causing a breakdown in the power of the majority.

The Battle for Power (the Shia Loss of Power)

Whilst the Shia may be the majority they also have a great sense of loss resulting in an increasing sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia. The loss caused has been life with so many of their community killed. This has in turn meant that many families have lost their income because they have lost their sole earner. Then there is a major religious dimension to this loss because so many of their places of worship have suffered major destruction resulting once again in loss. The loss between the two is what results in what has become known as religious sectarianism. Both Sunni and Shia feel that they have suffered major loss. Though 80% of the terrorist activity is carried out by members of the Sunni Community there are Shia involved in revenge attacks.

To add to the sectarian divide there have been several outrageous Sunni religious declarations and sermons on TV stating that at first the Shia should be killed and only then the Jews and the Christians.

The Reconciliation Process

The reconciliation process take place at two main levels. One is at the High Level with the most senior religious leaders and the other is at the grassroots levels with community religious leaders. There is also a key relation to the key political leaders. From the Christian side this includes COR member Yonadam Kanna and Minister Sargon Slewa. From the Muslim side Vice President Huzaie who is Shia with Sheik Khalid Al Mullah who is Sunni.

The grassroots work amongst the community religious leaders is involved directly in reducing violence. It has been very successful in doing this by preventing their community from getting involved in violent sections of working with their community such as Al Qaida and the birds of paradise.

The fact is that this process only works if the most senior religious leaders are behind it. That is why it is most essential that there are regular meetings of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. It is these leader’s that have the authority to influence those who are below them and prevent them and their people from becoming involved in violent activity.

High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq has not met recently and we see a major growth in sectarianism. It is essential that it does so at least twice a year. This work was originally totally supported by the US DOD. After political change this support stopped. We then saw a major rise in violence; in particular we saw a major onslaught against the Christian community with 58 people being killed in one Syrian Catholic service. It was after this terrible attack that the Danes came to the rescue. The first ever-joint Iraqi Sunni Shia Fatwa was produced which totally condemned all violence and murder of minorities. We did not expect the results of this Fatwa to be immediate but they were and the onslaught against the Christians stopped in it entirety.

It is essential that the grassroots work continues costing only about $10,000 a month. This money has come jointly from the British Embassy and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East of which I am the president. As regards the International meetings of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq, we have seen how these are essential to truly bring about a major reduction in violence. These meetings are considerably more expensive and one average have cost $250,000 per meeting. These meeting have happened at various points since 2003 and have had major positive effect. It is hoped that several supporters can be found to enable this essential process.

Canon Andrew White - the Vicar of Baghdad
Andrew White

Back to Iraq on 9/11

Dear Friends,

Today it was back to Iraq. As the plane landed I thought to myself “back at home at last”. As we drove though the war torn roads it suddenly dawned on me that today is 9/11. That day of the most terrible destruction, death and brokenness. It may have happened in New York but it changed the world forever. I realise that if it were not for that tragedy I would not be based here now. I was here before that awful day visiting just a few times a year, but it was afterwards that everything changed here forever and just one and a half years later the war begun.

The more that time goes on the more we realise how destroyed this country is by conflict. The original war may be well over but the death and carnage continues. This week alone well over a hundred people have been killed. As I arrived in my room at St George’s people were expressing to me how afraid they were that a Sunni-Shia civil war was breaking out. We cannot deny the reality of this present fear.

Yet in the midst this there is such confidence that the Lord is here and his Spirit is with us. We might be surrounded by terror worse than most people can ever imagine but we are also surrounded by the love of G-d like most people could never imagine. We are corporately so happy because we have the love of Jesus in our heart. As I have said so many times before, when you have lost everything Jesus is all you have left.


Canon Andrew White - the Vicar of Baghdad


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The Social Situation in Iraq Today

Falluja - December 2011

Picture: Mohamed Faisal/Reuters

People regularly ask about the social situation in Iraq today, well here is a little information.

It is nine years since the war to liberate Iraq from its evil dictatorship. We had hoped that by now Iraq would be on an upward spiral regarding democracy, human rights and religious freedom. Sadly this is not the case – there is increasing sectarianism, diminishing human rights, no religious freedom and a political system that is mayhem to say the least.

The sad reality is that the world has forgotten Iraq. The lack of international attention has resulted in it’s continued rapid demise. Whilst even under Saddam there was a police force with total control and some order, now that has all gone.

Corruption is rife and is present at every level in society from the most senior government minister to the policeman on the street. In reality you get what you can pay for. No money results in any power or influence. It is particularly worrying to see how this affects law and order. There is no real law or order. You get what you pay for.

Residents inspect a damaged church after a bomb attack in central Kirkuk - August - 2011

Picture: Ako Rasheed/Reuters

This has also caused the total lack of Human Rights particularly in the legal system, which has resulted in serious persecution of most people under arrest. If you pay for protection you get it if you cannot afford to you do not.

Added to the political and Human Rights issues the religious sectarianism issues have not diminished either. The major issue continues to between Sunni and Shia. The recent warrant for the arrest of Vice President Tariq Al Hashami has only increased the tension further with increased attacks on the Shia by the Sunni.

Whilst the recent Sunni Fatwa I organized has stopped a lot of the violence, no religious injunction like a Fatwa can have any affect against the biggest Sunni terrorist group Al Qaida (or ‘AQI’ as it is known in Iraq “Al Qaida Iraq”).

Fishing across from the Green Zone on the Tigris River

Picture: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Whilst this group was originally Baghdad based it has become increasingly Mosul based. Mosul has become an increasingly strong base for terrorist activity. There is no security there or religious freedom. There is no chance of questioning any aspect of religion as the Sunni terrorist is the only position, which is permitted. In Mosul there is absolutely no respect for (or adherence to) the UN declaration on Human Rights – and even more so as regards religious freedom.

Traditional values are held totally in the hands of the family. In reality this means the father – and there is no way that a family member can go against his decision. Being killed at the hands of a father is particularly a risk to daughters, and sadly this has happened on many occasions and there is no response from the law.

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A quick update

Canon Andrew, Nick Shenow and Sheik Khallid Al Mullah

Canon Andrew, Nick Shenow and Sheik Khalid Al Mullah

We have just had an outstanding meeting with one of the Sunni leaders,  Sheikh Khalid Al Mullah.

We talked about how the Fatwa from the Sunni clerics against killing the Shia has worked. We arranged to go together on Friday to see Sheik Akeel at Ezekiel Tomb. This is a major major achievement.

We also spoke about how we needed to work internationally but there was total agreement that we can only do this with full Jewish involvement.
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Senior Sunni Clerics issue fatwa against sectarian violence

Today I met with some of the most senior clerics in Iraq under the auspices of the Society of Iraqi Islamic Scientists (the senior Sunni Clerics Society). Some of them also came to Najaf with us on Friday.

The main issue on the agenda was finding ways to stop the sectarian violence against the Shia. They also delivered a Fatwa (Islamic) injunction against all sectarian violence and publicly declared that most sectarian violence was coming from the Sunni community.

Tomorrow the Fatwa will be discussed with the Iraqi Vice President and the British Ambassador.

The Fatwa


In the name of God the Merciful.

Under the conditions experienced by Iraqis and many Middle Eastern people at the present time and in the light of the increase in the level of Iraqi sectarian violence and the volatile situation, we believe that the deteriorating political condition calls upon us as Sunni religious scholars to together as a group to issue a Fatwa.

We wish to declare the sanctity of all Iraqi blood wether Shia, Sunni or Christian. We call for a mechanism to educate the Iraqi Society in order to renounce all sectarian violence and instead create an environment of cooperation with civil society organizations and institutions of civil jurisdiction so not to allow our people in Iraq to divide into sectarian conflicts. We must work towards national unity amongst all Muslims (Sunni and Shia) and Christians; we all have the duty and right to live together in unity in our country Iraq.

Dr Sheikh Khaled Abdul-Wahab Mullah, Leader, Sunni Cleric Baghdad & Basrah
Shekh Saadi Mehdi Qutaiba Alindaoui, Sunni Leader Al Anbar
Sheikh Maher Al Jubori, Sunni Cleric Fullujah
Dr Sheikh Kubaisi Jalal, Sunni Cleric Rammadi
Sheikh Marwan Al Araji, Sunni Cleric Baghdad
Sheikh Hasham Al Dulami, Sunni Cleric Fullujah

Insights from Sarah Ahmed, Director of Operations
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