In Iraq, a priest puts faith into life

Baghdad, Iraq - Attendance is booming at the Rev. Andrew White's church, as Iraqi Christians seek solace in religion to cope with lives of car bombings, kidnappings and deprivation.

Every month, Canon White, as he is known here, travels to Baghdad to minister to the faithful, including Western Protestants and Iraqi Assyrian Christians, who must be bused into the Green Zone to hear him preach, after Al Qaeda put a price on his head.

Over the past three years, the number of Iraqis attending his services has grown to about 900, said the Anglican priest, a 41-year-old Briton.

''People turn to religion when they are desperate," White said in an interview in a Green Zone coffee shop after conducting three Easter services. ''Because if you've got nothing else, you turn to God."

Muslims, too, are showing new interest in their faith, especially after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 enabled Shi'ites greater freedom for their religious rites.

The apparent Christian revival takes place against a backdrop of resurgent Muslim religious activity. Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim deaths are mounting daily in sectarian violence, political divisions have opened along religious lines, and both Shi'ite and Sunni services are gaining many congregants.

The tall, bespectacled cleric began visiting Iraq regularly in 1998, and he said he has seen profound changes since that time.

Under Hussein, White said he had found a more secular society where, on the surface, tensions among religious groups seemed nonexistent. But over time he began to realize that divisions were there; Iraqis were simply too terrified to speak frankly.

White recalled receiving a dinner invitation from Odai Hussein, Hussein's most ruthless son. He declined, but the man who delivered the invitation began to weep, pleading him to accept. Otherwise, Odai might have killed the messenger, White said.

Throughout the dinner, ''I was quite clearly in the presence of evil," White said.

Because he loathed Hussein's regime, White said he was one of the few religious figures in Britain to support the US-led invasion publicly. But sectarian divisions began to surface, and boiled over. Churches and mosques have been bombed. Four of White's top lay leaders disappeared in September, on their way home from a conference in Jordan.

Distrust and discrimination replaced hope and national pride. Those targeted because of their religion turned to it all the more, he said. Last year, White himself received a letter from Al Qaeda in Iraq warning him to leave and offering $30,000 to anyone who killed him.

''I was really upset about that," White said. ''I thought -- is that what I'm worth? And then he put it up to $4 million. I was a lot happier about that" until coalition authorities ordered him to stay in the Green Zone.

''So I've not been outside for a year," he said.

His Iraqi Christian congregation assembles at a downtown church and members are taken by bus to the Green Zone for services.

White said he has been struck by the rise in religious extremism, something he has seen firsthand by assisting as a mediator in 94 kidnappings, including Westerners. Only 27 of the victims have been released.

''They really think they're doing the work of God, and that's why we've got big problems," he said of the religious extremists. ''Religion when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. It puts people in danger."