Canon Andrew White has converted a number of Muslims using the Alpha course despite the threat of a religious backlash in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
White is the parish priest at St George’s Church, Baghdad, and leads services in a makeshift chapel in the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.
In the past year people have been killed at the entrance to St George’s, which has now been barricaded by concrete. A number of the lay leaders have been murdered.
White offers 10-week Alpha courses to both Muslims and westerners living in the city. He emphasises that the aim of the courses is not to convert nonbelievers, though eight out 20 Iraqis who attended the course have become Christians. He recently conducted a baptism in Saddam’s former private swimming pool.
The 41-year-old, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is not deterred by the violence. “Early on Easter morning we could hear the sound of bombs contrasting with birdsong,” White said. “Between the birds and the bombs, it was a wonderful service. This is the best parish I have had in my life.”
In recent months he has been forced to stay away from St George’s because it is so dangerous. Some of the congregation cross the city to attend the chapel, which is located in the safer international zone.
White is fully aware that converting Muslims is a sensitive issue. “Just yesterday I was asked to baptise some Muslims, but we have to be very careful over this,” he said. “There are Muslims who have asked to convert, but the reality is that it has to be done very quietly.
“The main point of the Alpha course is to provide a proper Christian foundation. A lot of people on the course have been nominal Christians already. It’s not just about getting new converts.”
Most attending the course in the chapel are from the armed forces or from construction companies working in Iraq. A civil engineer, who worked in the international zone until last year and asked to remain anonymous, said: “I had to do a double-take as I saw a young girl playing the guitar at the front with her M16 rifle propped up at her side.”
The engineer witnessed two Muslims secretly converting to Christianity: “They came to faith but they had to move away [from the area].”
The worship White leads is unmistakably evangelical: he uses a projector and screen to lead the congregation in singing hymns and choruses.
Alpha courses are designed to introduce people to the basics of Christianity. More than 6m people are said to have attended the courses in 150 countries since they were first developed at the Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, London.
White, who led some of the earliest Alpha courses in London 16 years ago, uses videos and DVDs from Holy Trinity to instruct his Baghdad congregation.
He became the parish priest of St George’s last summer after previously acting as a personal envoy to the Middle East for George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury.
His friends call him the “vicar of Iraq”. He has been involved in the negotiation for the release of more than 90 hostages and helped free Kate Burton, the British human rights activist, in Gaza in December.
“I don’t fear death in the slightest,” he says. “I have been shot at so many times now. Danger, death threats, bullets flying over my head, this is just part and parcel of my daily life.”
The Alpha courses are aggressively marketed in the UK, with extensive cinema campaigns containing celebrity endorsements, in the hope that they will reverse the decline in church attendances.
But a growing number of clergy are concerned about the evangelical phenomenon, saying it is manipulative, authoritarian and superficial.
Kenneth Wakefield, a vicar with the Launceston Team Ministry, Cornwall, is one of a number of clergy to have criticised Alpha over recent weeks.
“It’s like a nice glass of Coke, all fizzy. But once the fizz has gone, what have you got left? You can’t live on bubble and froth all the time,” he said. “It’s Noddy theology. It feeds privatised religion. It’s all about ‘me and my God’.”
Malcolm Brown, a priest and academic from Cambridge, claims people have been “alienated” from the church by the “insidious marketing of Alpha as the definitive expression of the Christian faith”.