Fighting for Peace in the Middle East

Many people present solutions to the various crises in the Middle East; many more think they have solutions to the region’s manifold problems. The reality is that the Middle East does not have just one problem. Those who think that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will solve all the problems in the region are very wrong. The conflict which caused havoc in Algeria had nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine issue. Neither does the conflict here in Iraq. There are many problems in this region, and the problems are not all about land, territory, or occupation.

A Deeper Look at Religion as the Cause of Conflict
A major cause is religion. It was Archbishop William Temple who said, “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.” Religion has gone very wrong. Much destruction in the name of religion has occurred (this is what we read about in John 16:2-3: “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.”) This is what we are seeing with people who are killing others with the belief they are pleasing the Almighty. Sadly, many people in the diplomatic political world are scared of religion. They fail to realise the role religion has in much of the world.

Many of those involved with interfaith matters are often Western liberals who do not believe in much at all. When dealing with the type of people you find in the Middle East, these Western liberals have no credibility.

Here, orthodoxy is fundamental. Here in Iraq, we have seen uncontrollable violence and death; the massacring of thousands of people who are killed by those thinking they are doing God’s work. They believe God’s work is preventing the other from having power. Much terrorism is committed by people who feel they have lost something—land, territory, money, or influence—but ultimately, it is about the loss of power. It is therefore essential that we work with people who can make a difference.

The High Council of Religious Leaders
When I first started working in this area, I tried the Western way of working from the bottom up; however, I soon realised that those from the lower ranking religious positions could not change things. If we wanted to change things, we had to concentrate on those who could bring about change. Thus, we formed the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. Criteria were established for people who could join this group. They had to fall into one of four categories:

  1. Religious leaders with major influence and following
  2. Individuals with a major television following
  3. Individuals with very significant political influence
  4. Individuals who represent those involved in causing violence (terrorist groups such as Al Qaida cannot be worked with)

All of our delegates fall into one of these categories, including the chief of staff of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Iraqi Sunni sheik who is on television daily, the chief religious advisor to the Prime Minister, and the chief spokesperson of Muqtada Al Sader’s Mahdi Army.

The High Council is made up of Sunni and Shia leaders. Initially, this group was anti-American and anti-coalition. Over months of meetings, things have changed to the extent that they now say the Americans have given their country back to them. The Council also issued the first joint Fatwa (decree) that they produced together against all violence.

Below is the most recent declaration they issued together:

  1. A strong demand for the unity of the Iraqi land, defense of the legitimacy of Iraq and its full independence, and an end to the foreign presence in the country.
  2. A resolute condemnation of organized criminal violence against the Iraqi Christians who form a genuine part of Iraqi society. In addition, a call for all the political parties, the official institutions, and the civil institutions to stand firmly against such criminal behavior and to work together to stop such inhumane activities.
  3. Despite there being positive indications of decline in the amount of sectarian tension, those present in the meeting emphasized the importance of spreading the spirit of forgiveness and of putting an end to sectarianism and discrimination using media channels and through all levels of education.
  4. Keeping arms in the hand of the State is the only way to ensure establishment of the state of law. At the same time, pursuit of such a path will meet the demand of the Iraqis to build their state and secure common peace and communal life.
  5. It is so important to activate the general amnesty law, to secure as soon as possible the release of the innocent, to stop the arrests that have taken place outside the legal process, and to put an end to torture and any other actions against human rights.
  6. A strong condemnation of terrorism, regardless of the shape or name under which it is carried out.

The High Council of Religious Leaders produced a strong and excellent statement. These are people of influence who can bring about change. We need to realise that all religion has power. Either it will create something beautiful or it will destroy.

In all this work of reconciliation, I simply keep thinking of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. In Christ, those you hate can become your friends.

(Editor’s note: White’s recent book, The Vicar of Baghdad: Fighting for Peace in the Middle East, was just published by Monarch.)

Rev. Canon Andrew White is president and CEO of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, chaplain of St. George's Church in Baghdad, Anglican/Episcopal chaplain of the International Zone Baghdad and senior advisor in Inter-Religious Affairs to the Prime Minister of Iraq. Over the past few years he has acted as a negotiator in many conflict situations, including the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the riots between Muslims and Christians in Northern Nigeria. In recent years, he has been awarded several prizes for his peace work, including the U.S. Cross of Valor, the Tanenbaum Peace Maker in Action Prize, the International Sternberg Prize, and the ICCJ Prize for Sustained Intellectual Contribution to Jewish-Christian Relations.