Monday 18 December 2017

'Vicar of Baghdad' accused of falsely taking credit for hostage release

Colin Freeman

A prominent Anglican clergyman has been accused of falsely taking credit for securing the release of Peter Moore, the British hostage held for more than two years in Iraq, and even had to be asked to stop interfering.

Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St George's Church in Baghdad, has been criticised over claims that he played a central part in freeing Mr Moore after he was kidnapped along with his four bodyguards by Shia militants in 2007. Canon White, who has been nicknamed "The Vicar of Baghdad" for his pastoral work in the Iraqi capital, was quoted in a newspaper last week saying: "Peter was freed directly because of our efforts."

However, relatives of Mr Moore and others familiar with the investigation have said that far from assisting in the negotiations, he had to be asked to stop interfering.

At one point, a letter of complaint about his conduct was sent by the families of the five hostages to the head of his diocese. It is understood to have accused him of making unauthorised statements about the case to the media, and of exaggerating his influence with the kidnap gang. It also alleged that he had given the families of the four bodyguards false hopes that they were still alive and about to be released.

The bodies of three of the bodyguards – Alec MacLachlan, Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell – were passed to British authorities in Baghdad last year, having been killed by their captors. A fourth bodyguard, Alan McMenemy, is also believed to have been killed, although his body has never been recovered.

Pauline Sweeney, Mr Moore's stepmother, who met Canon White in 2009, said: "I know for a fact that he had nothing to with Peter being released. I think he has slight delusions of grandeur. The hostages' families did meet him at one point, and he reiterated that the hostages were definitely alive and well. Nobody else was telling us that at the time, but people could not help clinging to that hope."

A former special envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Canon White visited Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule and then returned after the war to become rector of St George's, administering to a congregation of Iraqi Christians.

He claims to have used contacts built up before the war to build links with insurgent groups, and to have mediated in numerous hostage cases.

A multiple sclerosis sufferer, he also featured in a 2008 documentary The Vicar of Baghdad by the broadcaster Rageh Omaar.

However those with knowledge of the talks that ultimately freed Mr Moore say Canon White was not part of the specialist diplomatic negotiating team, and that his involvement was at best peripheral.

In July last year, a letter was sent to The Right Reverend Michael Lewis, the Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, to whom Canon White's church is affiliated, saying he had lost the trust of the families and discredited his position as a canon. It is also understood to have accused him of making an unauthorised disclosure to a newspaper that Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst had been killed.

Canon White declined to comment on his role in the hostage negotiations. He admitted that his diocese had received a letter of complaint, but that other members of the hostages' families had sent a letter of "thanks and praise" for his work. He denied making the comments attributed to him in last week's newspaper interview with the London Evening Standard.

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