Too strong for television: Tragic stories from the vicar of Baghdad

The 5-year-old boy was named Andrew, to honor the British priest who baptized him at St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad.

When Islamic State forces moved into Qaraqosh, the boy's parents faced an agonizing choice that has become all too common in the ancient Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain. The choice: Convert to Islam or suffer the consequences. 

Andrew was cut in half, his parents said, while they were forced to watch.

 The traumatized parents were later reunited with Canon Andrew White, long known as the "vicar of Baghdad." This is one of many stories he has been sharing with journalists -- for years he acted as special envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury -- in an attempt to raise awareness of the hellish details behind the now-familiar television images.

 A recent trip to Washington, D.C., brought him to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a setting that raised agonizing questions about the massacres carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- which has claimed the power to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the region.

 White stressed that he would never compare this slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, Shi'a Muslims and believers in other religious minorities with the killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust or "Shoah."

{C} "The Shoah was the worst tragedy in history," he said. Nevertheless, the word "genocide" can be used to describe what is happening because the "fact is that an entire religious minority is being removed from a nation, they have been forced out.

{C} "We used to have one and a half million Christians in Iraq. Now, we may have 300,000. That's all. There are more Christian Iraqis in Chicago than there are in Iraq. When I want to go see my community, I go to Chicago. ... Now I am watching my people who have fled Baghdad being massacred."

{C} White arrived in Baghdad in 1998 and, in addition to years of pastoral work and diplomacy, he also created the interfaith Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. It's director, Dr. Sarah Ahmed, is a Muslim physician who was born and raised in Iraq.

{C} Events of the past few years have revealed what pure hatred looks like when it is given free reign, she said, at the Holocaust Museum. Tragically, local people and others on the fringes of the Islamic State organization are committing some of the worst violence -- perhaps attempting to win favor with their conquerors.

{C} As a rule, young male refugees who are captured are being killed or forced to become soldiers for jihad, while many girls are being raped and then sold as sex slaves "and no one is doing anything about it," she said.

There are at least three levels of violence. The first demonstrates mere power and greed, with mobs and soldiers driving people out of their homes and businesses and into the streams of refugees. According to United Nations estimates, at least one million Iraqis have been displaced during the past four months.

{C} The second level of everyday violence, she said bluntly, is "just shooting people."

{C} On the third level, people move beyond deadly violence into unbelievable acts of terror. A Muslim who fled the fighting, said Ahmed, told her one story about what happened to some Iraqi men who could not flee fast enough. The Islamic State soldiers "lay them on the ground, after shooting them," and then rolled over the bodies with a tractor in "front of their families, just to devastate them."

White said those who survive are left haunted by what they have seen and, in some cases, what they themselves have done.

{C} Recently, he said, one Christian father contacted him in despair, even though his children were still alive. In an all-too-familiar scene, ISIS leaders demanded that he convert to Islam, rather than see his children killed, or worse.

{C} "So this father said the words to convert into Islam," said White, referring to the familiar prayer, "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is the Messenger of God."

{C} The father was "crying on the phone ... I said those words, but I still love Yeshua (Jesus). I will never leave Yeshua. Will he stop loving me, now?' I said, 'No, of course not. You are still part of the Christian community as you ever have been. You are still one of us.' "