Onward, Christian soldier

Baghdad, Iraq - As the vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White has been robbed by gunmen and summoned to supper with Saddam's sons. He tells David Thomas about his run-ins with insurgents, rock stars and spies

Canon Andrew White is, among other things, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad. In some respects, his life is much like that of any other clergyman. He wears a conventional black clerical uniform, complete with dog collar and a cross about his neck.

He conducts weddings: his last bride was the BBC's Middle East correspondent, Orla Guerin. Every year, at Christmas, he tries to remember to bring mince pies for his congregation.

In other ways, however, Andrew White is not your typical vicar. Few of them, for example, know most of the big players in Middle Eastern politics personally, or can report that, "Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay were wearing slightly shiny suits when we met. I remember thinking I wouldn't have worn them myself."

Fewer still are currently prevented from attending their own parish church, because it stands in an area deemed unsafe for Westerners. Nor would most wishy-washy, bleeding-heart Anglican padres declare, in a tone of total conviction: "I think the war in Iraq had to happen - even though it's very unpopular for a priest, a man of peace, to say this.

"The Saddam regime was really, really evil. And there was no other way of getting rid of it. If you had applied sanctions longer, harder, it would have affected the people even more. But it would not have affected the regime. Talking to the Iraqi people, meeting them, living with them, I would say that 70 per cent of them still think they had to be liberated, even though the current situation is so awful."

A tall, heavily built man, White is at first glance the very embodiment of muscular Christianity. Aged 40, he stands for his photograph with his back straight, his head up, and a look of fierce determination on his face: the look of a man who knows how to deliver a rousing sermon. Yet appearances can be deceptive.

White suffers from MS, a condition that forces him to walk with a stick, though he insists, "It doesn't affect my ability to do my job at all. It just affects my ability to get around. Climbing in and out of helicopters is quite difficult."

Despite his belief that the invasion of Iraq satisfied St Thomas Aquinas' conditions for a just war, Andrew White has spent most of his career working for peace and reconciliation between nations, peoples and faiths.

His business card describes him as chief executive of the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East. When we meet at its cramped offices near Victoria Station to discuss the book he has just written about his work, I notice that his left wrist is bedecked with bands and beaded bracelets, one of which spells out P-E-A-C-E.

White grew up "a boy from suburbia" in Bexley, south-east London. He trained first for a medical career at St Thomas' Hospital before switching to theology at Cambridge and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ordained in 1990, he developed an interest in inter-faith politics because, "I began to understand how awful Christians had been to the Jews, and it went on from there."

By 1999, he was the director of the International Centre for Reconciliation, based at Coventry Cathedral. He made his first visit to Baghdad in March that year, to report on the condition of the Iraqi people living under the UN sanctions. About a year later, he received an invitation, via the minder assigned to him by the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police. Uday and Qusay wanted him to meet them for dinner.

White's first reaction was to say, "No." But, he says, "I agreed to meet them because I had to. The Mukhabarat chaps with me were terrified about what might happen to them if I did not go. So I went for the sake of their lives. It was one of the worst evenings of my life.

"We went to a restaurant in Baghdad. The brothers were sitting at state around this table, having everything brought to them. They wanted to talk to me to make sure that I was 'fighting the sanctions', which was the terminology used for entering into their political campaign against the West. They were extremely nice to me and they obviously wanted me to come onside. But sitting in their presence was like being next to pure evil.

"What was so frightening was how fearful everyone else was. Everyone there was petrified of them. Those serving us were petrified, the other diners were petrified and I was petrified. I was too scared even to mention that dinner as long as Uday and Qusay were alive."

This sounds more like politics than religion, but White's work in Iraq had a strong religious element. He got to know the leading Muslim clerics in Iraq and in turn introduced them to leading Western Christians, including the American evangelist Billy Graham. Within a year of his first visit to Iraq, he had become the de facto vicar of St George's, the long-neglected Anglican church in Baghdad.

"Tariq Aziz [the Iraqi deputy prime minister, himself a Christian] let me take services there when I visited, but most of the congregation were spies. There'd be a few local Iraqis and some people from the UN, but in essence it was a Mukhabarat service."

Not surprisingly, White's apparent closeness to the Saddam regime meant he was criticised in the West as a dupe, a stooge for an evil regime.

He admits now that his critics had a point: "Initially I was naïve in my assessment of what was happening. The atmosphere of oppression was obvious from the start. The Iraqi people were in a terrible state. But I didn't quite appreciate just how evil the regime was and how they were using sanctions for their benefit. It took me a while to realise they were very, very bad people. But as I went back to Iraq on a regular basis and people started talking to me in private, I began to realise what was going on."

He still believes, however, that he was right to break bread with the baddies. "You mustn't just engage with the nice guys. The nice guys don't cause the wars. If we just deal with the nice, Western, liberal moderates in the Middle East, we'll never get anywhere. I spent all last week with the Hamas in Gaza. I think they're very wicked. And yet, at the same time, I've got to recognise that these are the people who can bring about change."

His experience in Baghdad before the war has proved invaluable since then. White still visits Iraq every month. He and the Iraqis who work with him act as intermediaries between different groups within Iraq, between the Iraqi governing council and the coalition, or between families of hostages and the groups that have kidnapped them.

"If I hadn't been there before the war, I couldn't do the job I do now," he says. "I knew everyone and they trusted me. They certainly wouldn't trust me if I'd just turned up with all the soldiers."

He does not deal with hostage-takers directly. "It won't be the kidnappers themselves, but intermediaries who are close to them. They come to us or we go to them. Now, the Foreign Office doesn't allow me to leave the international zone in Baghdad, for my own safety, so I have a team of people who do this for me."

White knows that the men on his side could just as easily switch to the other. "Poor Iraqis join the insurgents for a couple of hundred dollars a month. One of the things we discovered early on is that you can't buy these people, you just hire them. The guys we have looking for kidnap victims would probably be doing the kidnapping if they were being paid more. We're not blind to that."

The money is well-earned. Negotiating with kidnappers is a dangerous business. At least one of White's negotiators has been killed. Others have been locked in bare cells for 36 hours at a time, surrounded by dismembered body parts. White, too, has had his share of nerve-racking moments. In July 2003, he was driving in a convoy of people-movers across the desert between Baghdad and the Jordanian border. White was dozing when the convoy was suddenly halted.

"It all happened so quickly," he says, in a surprisingly everyday tone of voice. "Suddenly, you wake up and there's an AK47 pointing at your face and a guy with a scarf wrapped round his head, who wants all your money. It was pretty scary for all of us. My assistant said, 'Drive on! Drive on!' But I said, 'No, don't do that!' I knew that if you run away from these guys, they kill you. So you don't run, you give them all your money."

White handed over $3,000, money given to him as a charitable donation, without a word of argument. No one argues with Iraqi insurgents. "A young Israeli soldier once stuck a gun in my face," says White. "I told him to grow up and stop being so stupid. But that technique doesn't work with these people…"

White describes an entirely different Iraq to the one that is usually presented to us, via media reporting that he believes has "an extreme anti-American bias". "I love Iraq," he says. "Immediately after the war, before the insurgency began, Baghdad was one of the most beautiful, wonderful cities in the world - lovely houses, a beautiful river. It was an incredible experience living and working in Baghdad. I'd go out to the shops. I'd go to my tailor and my barber. They would be the relaxing things that were a change from hanging around the embassies."

Even now, despite the continual threat of violence, wages and house prices are rising, shops are full; schools and hospitals are reopening; water, sewage and electricity services are being restored. One can even buy bananas, which had been banned under the old regime. As White explains with a chuckle, "Saddam didn't like bananas. So there weren't any bananas. If he didn't like something, you didn't get it."

White is a fascinating, complex character. He is evidently deeply sincere about and committed to his work, yet I suspect that one of the reasons he allows it to take him away from his wife, Caroline, and his sons, Josiah and Jacob, is that he loves his status in the Middle East and his high-level contacts in Downing Street and Washington.

One can't blame him. The Church of England would find it much easier to recruit vicars if everyone could have a jet-setting, action-man lifestyle like Andrew White's. Which of us, in his shoes, could resist the temptation to drop the names of the great and not-so-good? "Yasser Arafat may have been a total and utter rogue, but you grew to love him," he says. "I had a wonderful relationship with him. In the last months of his life, I gave up trying to do politics with him. We just ate together, talked together and were friends."

He even lunches with rock stars, although he claims, amusingly, that he's not always fully aware of the fact. White sits on C-100, a committee set up by the World Economic Forum to try to promote understanding between Islam and Christianity. He went to this year's economic forum meeting at Davos.

"When I came back home my wife said, 'You must have met some really important people.' I said, 'Not really. Last night, I had dinner with Bill Clinton, which was nice. But today at lunch, I sat next to some singer called Bruno.' My wife said, 'No, that's Bono, from U2.' I had to confess that I had no idea who he was."

As name-drops go, that's pretty artful. But it's difficult to grudge him the perks of the job. Whatever his motivation, whatever his chances of success as a peacemaker in Iraq and Israel, White is engaged in important - and useful - work. I ask him how it feels when he goes back to Baghdad, flown in by military helicopter, with gun-toting soldiers standing guard by the open doors. Canon Andrew White smiles. He says, "It feels like I'm going back home."