THE FORMER hostage and Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy, Terry Waite, was refused access to the Gaza Strip on Monday, on his first trip to the Middle East since being released from captivity there 12 years ago.
Mr Waite spent 1763 days as a hostage in the Lebanon, after his captors incorrectly linked him to US arms shipments to Iran. This week, he had hoped to visit YMCA staff in Gaza City in his capacity as President of Y Care International.
The charity, which he helped to found 20 years ago, works with young people through the YMCA.
But on Monday, despite having applied for a visa three weeks earlier, and having made repeated phone calls, he was told by the Israeli authorities that there had not been enough time to process his application.
“That is what normally happens when you wish to visit an area that they don’t want you to visit. It was illegal to stop us. It is very irritating,” he said on Tuesday, on his return to England.
Hopes of return
But he hoped to return. “I hope the next time I will meet people who, it is alleged, had some close relationships with my captors,” he said. “If I meet them, I will ask them: ‘Where are you now and what are you doing?’”
He said that the Church was “unquestionably” political. “It has to involve itself in political structures to discern what is just and unjust, and to work for justice. You are fooling yourself if, as a humanitarian worker, you think you can work without touching the political structures.”
When asked to comment on the work of Canon Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East, Mr Waite said: “First, if you act as a reconciler and seek to act impartially, you will be criticised because you are bound to upset some people some of the time. Secondly, you may have to pay a higher cost. If you do, don’t complain. You decided what you would do. I have never complained about my captivity, but be prepared.”
Mr Waite said he had not been apprehensive about returning to the Middle East. “They were difficult years for me — of course they were — I was suspected of being an American agent, and I was interrogated on that, and I came through. If there had been anything doubtful, I would have been dead.”
But it had been difficult for others, too, he said; the Western hostages were only a fraction of those captured, who included “quite a few hundred Lebanese”.
View of faith
People had wondered whether he had lost his faith. “What I said then was that, in normal life, the Church surrounds itself with all sorts and forms of wrappings that are necessary; but, in captivity, they are no longer important. What matters is the essential heart of faith, which was for me, in my years of captivity, that they could not possess my soul: my soul was in the hands of God.”
He said that although some of the young people he had met were being given computer training with the help of Y Care, they had told him that they did not have much hope for the future. “Is it surprising, then, that youngsters are seeking security in fundamentalist extremist groups? When hope dies, where do you go?” he asked.
Terry Waite is giving a lecture on the Middle East at the Royal Geographical Society, London, on Tuesday 2 March at 7 p.m. Tickets £12: phone 020 7421 3015.