A roving church diplomat, credited with a key role in freeing the Rev. Benjamin Weir after 16 months in captivity in Lebanon, is appealing to the captors for a meeting about their other six American hostages.
“The situation is not deadlocked,” said Terry Waite, a special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. “There is room for movement. We believe there are ways of loosening the situation.”
Waite, 46, a tall, astutely articulate Englishman and veteran church negotiator, was assigned to the case a year ago by the Most Rev. Robert Runcie, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Glimpse of Churches’ Roles
The account of Waite’s role, kept secret until this week, offers a rare glimpse into the usually behind-the-scene activities of the churches in dealing with snarled international predicaments with lives at stake.
Churches, by not being locked into political positions, have somewhat more freedom in negotiations, Waite noted. Islamic religious factions involved in Lebanon also tend to have greater respect for religious representatives.
“We’re at a very critical point in this matter,” Waite told a news conference, adding that it was a risk to “go public” in appealing to the holders of the prisoners for face-to-face meetings.
“It’s extremely difficult and dangerous, but it’s a risk worth taking,” Waite said. “Those men have been held long enough. By entering more closely into discussions, we believe there are ways of loosening the situation.”
So far he has worked on it through a confidential intermediary in Beirut. This contact has enabled Waite to maintain regular communications with the captors for the past six months.
In a statement for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for which Weir had been a mission worker in Lebanon for more than 30 years, the Rev. Frederick R. Wilson, associate head of the denomination’s program agency, said:
“Terry Waite has been instrumental in assuring that the living conditions of the hostages were significantly improved, and we believe that ultimately his interventions resulted in the decision . . . to release Ben Weir.”
There “has been the closest possible cooperation” on the case between the Vatican and Lambeth Palace, the Anglican headquarters in London, Waite said, noting that he visited Rome several times, meeting with Pope John Paul II about the hostage situation.
Waite said he also has kept in contact with several governmental administrations, including that of the United States, but that his special efforts were directed through the Beirut intermediary, with whom he met repeatedly.
‘Always Been Accurate’
“His information has always been accurate,” Waite said.
Several days before Weir was released, Waite said he was informed about it and he remains in touch with the intermediary. However, until recently, Waite said families of the other hostages were unaware of his involvement.
He said he and Runcie had hoped their involvement would not become publicly known, but through consultation among the churches since Weir’s release, it was decided to go public in “hope for a new breakthrough.”