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He Seeks Americans’ Release : Hostage Mediator Waite-- Builder of Rapport, Trust

Times Staff Writer

Terry Waite is the unlikeliest of global diplomats.

As one of five special assistants to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he has no formal training in the sophisticated art of negotiation.

He earns less than $20,000 a year from his Anglican Church position and drives a dilapidated Renault. His relaxed, passive nature and his 6-foot 7-inch, 230-pound frame make him seem more like an overgrown teddy bear than the savvy international arbitrator he has become.

Although Waite, 46, displays little of the Kissinger-style flair and confidence that Americans have come to associate with successful diplomacy, he has twice managed to free British prisoners from Middle East jails in patient, delicate negotiations after the professionals had failed.

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Those successes have led Waite to his latest, most difficult mission: gaining the freedom of American hostages held captive by Muslim extremists in Beirut for more than a year.

Waite first became well known to fellow Britons in February, 1981, when three months of shuttle diplomacy with the Iranian government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led to the release of three Anglican missionaries jailed in the frenzied aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran.

Earlier this year, after six months of negotiations that included talks with Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, in his desert Bedouin tent and a half-hour address to Libya’s legislative assembly in a Tripoli circus ring, Waite brought home four other Britons jailed by an angry Kadafi after Britain severed diplomatic relations with Libya in April, 1984.

Those who know Waite say several qualities have contributed to his success.

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His imposing size and strong religious convictions are assets in a region where both physical strength and religious devotion--even to non-Muslim faiths--command respect. It may help, too, that he represents no government and has a style totally different from the polished manner of Western diplomats Middle East leaders have come to distrust.

He exhibits unusual patience, often languishing for days in hotel rooms waiting to see key government officials.

Rapport and Trust

But the key to Waite’s success, those familiar with his work say, is an unusual ability to establish rapport and build trust among people of vastly different viewpoints.

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“He’s a man who lives his faith and is honestly concerned about justice,” said John Miles, the archbishop’s press secretary and a friend of Waite for the last 15 years. “This honesty gets across.”

Added Dr. Kenneth Cragg, assistant Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and a noted specialist on Islam: “He generates trust. He is very careful in the way he approaches people.”

Waite’s easygoing manner masks an agile mind and meticulous preparation for his work.

He studied Kadafi carefully for weeks before their first meeting, learned of his fascination with the influence of early Greeks on Islamic thought, then presented the Arab leader with a book on the subject at their first meeting.

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The gesture broke the ice.

When Kadafi responded with a gift for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert A.K. Runcie, Waite sought out Cragg to choose an appropriate passage from the Koran for the archbishop’s response.

Stresses Shared Values

Miles noted that Waite frequently invoked those values common to both Christianity and Islam to establish rapport, often appealing to a Muslim sense of justice.

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“His mission has always been to free innocent people, so the message is a powerful one,” Miles noted.

In his speech to the Libyan National Assembly earlier this year, Waite told delegates he planned to visit the families of Libyans jailed in Britain. “It is my duty to God and to you,” he said.

Six weeks later, the four British captives were released to Waite’s custody.

But Waite is not alone. He can quietly invoke the considerable influence of the Anglican Church in the region. For example, an Anglican bishop in Amman, Jordan, Elia Khouri, is a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.

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The son of a village policeman in northwestern England, Waite served in the army before developing an affinity for Third World church work. He organized food relief programs in Sudan and then advised the Roman Catholic Church on international development and missionary activities.

While working as the first lay adviser to the Archbishop of Uganda, he and his wife, who was eight months pregnant, were threatened and held at gunpoint by troops of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin.

In 1980, he went to work for the Anglican Church when Archbishop Runcie selected him to maintain links between London and the 70 million Anglicans scattered around the globe.

Waite’s role as a negotiator developed purely by chance. After months of futile efforts to free the Anglican missionaries in Iran through official diplomatic channels, Waite suggested he try himself, noting, “After all, they are our own people.”

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According to sources at the Anglican Church headquarters adjacent to London’s Westminster Abbey, Waite for several months has followed the plight of the American hostages held captive by Shia Muslim extremists. These sources say he played an unspecified role in gaining the release of one of them, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, a 61 year-old Presbyterian missionary, two months ago after a request from Presbyterian Church elders.

Waite took up his role of mediator after Runcie received a letter purportedly signed by four of the hostages, asking help. The four are Father Lawrence Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest, David P. Jacobsen and Thomas Sutherland, two officials of the American University in Beirut, and Terry A. Anderson, the Beirut bureau chief of the Associated Press.

A Muslin faction called Islamic Jihad claims to have killed a fifth hostage, U.S. diplomat William Buckley, and there has been no word for months about a sixth, Peter Kilburn, librarian at the American University.

Earlier this month, Waite began a round of shuttle diplomacy, traveling twice to Beirut to meet the American hostages’ captors, then to New York and Washington for talks with senior United Nations and U.S. officials.

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Waite, who was not available for an interview, was scheduled to return to London today before flying either to Beirut or to Kuwait, where he will probably try to meet with government leaders responsible for the 17 Shia Muslims jailed for terrorist attacks on Western installations there, including the U.S. and French embassies.

Those holding the Americans in Lebanon have demanded that Kuwait release the Shias as a condition for freeing the hostages.

Four years of publicity have done little to alter Waite’s life style. He lives with his wife and four children in the same modest south London home and drives the same battered car. He has refused potentially lucrative offers to sell the story of his experiences and has donated to charity monetary awards presented for his work.


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