‘Vicar of Baghdad’ unarmed on the front lines, standing up to ISIS

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  • 09/21/2022

[John Zmirak is co-author of The Race to Save Our Century.]

Last week I got to visit the chic headquarters of Estee Lauder, and savor its privileged view of New York???s Central Park, where ornate pre-war towers flank the green, rolling hillets of America???s Versailles gardens. But perfume and real estate were starkly beside the point. I was there to meet an eyewitness to ongoing genocide, and his report from the front reminded me once again why pacifism is deadly, and why the Nazis loved gun control.

Some background first. I just published a book about the horrors that engulfed the West in 1914, which tries to explain how it happened that governments worldwide intentionally murdered some 170 million of their own civilians???not including casualties of war. So tyrants who target religious minorities are near the front of my mind. I am grateful to cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, who speaks out frequently in defense of Middle Eastern Christians, for hosting an intimate talk on Sept. 18 for reporters with Canon Andrew White, nicknamed the ???Vicar of Baghdad.???

An Oxford-trained scholar, Canon White chose to leave behind leather chairs and weighty tomes for the dust and heat of a church that teeters on the brink of mass martyrdom. In 1998, White went to serve as pastor of St. George???s, a small Anglican parish in Baghdad. He has led in the struggle of Christians to survive the brutish regime of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. invasion, the attacks of Sunni and Shiite militias, and now the brutal assaults of ISIS.

In his plummy English accent, and a voice that kept breaking with emotion, White gave heart-wrenching accounts of hard-working, peaceful Christians under siege. The people of St. George???s church came from families who had lived in Iraq for thousands of years???but now are fleeing or already have fled their native land. ???There are more Iraqi Christians in Michigan now than in Iraq,??? White admitted, sadly. ???I used to implore them to stay and keep the church alive. But now with ISIS only 30 kilometers away, I no longer feel right in saying that,??? White said.

White also runs a school, and medical and dental clinics. His Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East organizes food aid and emergency supplies for Christians and other refugees. It gets some help from friendly local Muslims, one of whom is his brave assistant, Sarah Ahmed???an Iraqi Sunni who offers her services as a dentist to the abandoned Christians who stream into her clinic from ISIS-occupied cities such as Mosul.

The assembled reporters, who hailed from CBS, Fox, National Review and other outlets, listened solemnly to Canon White and posed respectful questions. It is rare for most of us to meet someone who serves so close to the front lines of absolute evil, working to preserve the world???s most vulnerable and defenseless.

Perhaps it was tasteless of me, but I wanted to know exactly why they are so defenseless. I have Lebanese friends, so I realize that not everywhere in the Middle East are the Christians helpless scapegoats for Muslim aggression. I raised my hand and asked: ???There are Shiite militias and Sunni militias and Kurdish militias???. Why aren???t there Christian militias, to defend people like you and your parishioners????

Canon White nodded thoughtfully, ???I have heard this question before, especially from Americans. I???m afraid that the people of my church would be deeply offended to hear you say that. They would answer that as Christians they believe in peace, that all they ask for is to be left to live in peace. They have no wish to fight against anyone.???

My stomach dropped. People who can defend themselves and their families from harm, but refuse to fight out of some misguided principle, are almost impossible to help. Pacifism is simply the perverse, flip side of militarism, as Jason Jones and I argue in The Race to Save Our Century:

[T]here is no drive more rootedly human than the will to preserve yourself and to protect your loved ones???an instinct pacifism condemns, either openly or secretly. Any position that asks that you passively watch your spouse or children be raped, enslaved, or killed is intrinsically antihuman.

However, none of that applies in the case of Iraqi Christians???who have been outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded since the seventh century Islamic conquest of their country. For most of the subsequent centuries, they were subjugated as dhimmis???third-class citizens who must give way ???with willing submission??? to their Muslim rulers and neighbors on pain of death. Given that grueling reality, in a place where one cannot defend himself or his children, wielding the language of pacifism is a smart means of self-defense.

The Christians of Iraq were also wise to ally with whatever government promised them solid protection???as (for all its other horrors) Saddam Hussein???s regime once did. Likewise, Assad???s secular dictatorship, which uses brutal means to repress its less-than-tolerant Sunni majority, is the only safe refuge left in the Middle East for hunted Christians outside of overcrowded Lebanon. Canon White warned that the fall of Assad, if it happens, will certainly send Syria???s Christians fleeing???those, that is, who escape alive. Long prevented from defending themselves, Middle Eastern Christians have no choice but to rely on the kindness of strangers.

While the genocide aimed at Christians does not approach the scale of what the Nazis aimed at Europe???s Jews, there are some sobering parallels between each of these assaults upon the innocent. The Jews of Germany were likewise completely helpless, dependent on the mercies of a hostile government???and the half-hearted, ineffectual protests of foreign powers.

Years before the outbreak of war emboldened the Nazis to begin their extermination program, vicious persecutions of Jewish citizens were taking place in Germany. To prepare the way for assaults???such as Kristallnacht???on Jewish property, temples, and persons, the government had embarked on a comprehensive program to disarm Germany???s Jews, so that they could not defend themselves from rampaging mobs.

Historian Stephen Halbrook documents in his ground-breaking study of a long-taboo subject, Gun Control in the Third Reich, that as early as 1933, the Nazis began massive searches for and seizures of firearms from Social Democrats and other political opponents, who were invariably described as ???Communists.??? Nazi raids on Jewish quarters to search for firearms took place in this period, and Nazi power was consolidated in part by disarming the ???politically unreliable??? and ???enemies of the state.???

As the details of the Holocaust became more widely known and discussed in the wake of the Second World War, some Jewish thinkers expressed shame or outrage at the apparent ???passivity??? of Jews in the face of extermination. Jewish historians responded by pointing to the centuries of subjugation and persecution by intolerant Gentile societies, which had conditioned Jews to passive or indirect resistance in the face of overwhelming power. Halbrook???s research completes that picture of enforced helplessness.

Today, Christians in the Middle East who suffered centuries of subjugation, who are unarmed and hence helpless, face the real threat of extermination. We should thank Ronald Lauder for standing in solidarity with them. I hope that readers are moved to help Canon White in his efforts to save as many innocent people as he can, through his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.