Terry Waite: Is He a Miracle Worker or Merely an Innocent Abroad?

Geoffrey Smith is political columnist for the Times of London.

Terry Waite is the closest approach to a popular hero that the Church of England has produced for the past half-century.

Negotiating for the release of innocent hostages with some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world is neither a safe occupation nor one that is usually expected of an adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Waite's activities have the drama of war for a humanitarian purpose. It is small wonder, then, that they have attracted such public attention in Great Britain. There has been a romance about all his missions: Everybody approves of his objective, but nobody has known each time whether he would succeed or sometimes whether he would emerge safely himself.

He has been like a 19th-Century explorer setting off for distant countries and unknown peoples, equipped only with his spirit and his powers of persuasion to take him through the most difficult encounters. This has made his successes seem all the more remarkable and his failures all the more understandable.

Waite's exploits on behalf of hostages began on Christmas Day of 1980, when he flew to Tehran at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury to try to secure the release of three British missionaries and a businessman who were held on charges of spying.

His background made him as good a choice for the task as any other member of the archbishop's staff. As secretary for Anglican communion affairs--the first layman to hold the post--he has responsibility for liaison with churches overseas.

He had considerable experience in the Third World. While working for the first Archbishop of Uganda, Ruanda and Burundi, Waite and his wife had been held at gunpoint by Idi Amin's troops. So he was not unused to danger.

Then he had eight years as an international consultant on missionary and development work for the Roman Catholic Church. So, although an Anglican who comes from the evangelical--or more fundamentalist--wing of that church, his background and style indicate a man who is broad in his sympathies.

All these factors must have been considered qualification for an extremely delicate mission. He was also aided by his imposing physical presence. With his beard, his immense height and his massive build, Waite looks rather like a cross between an Eastern Orthodox patriarch and a professional wrestler.

He was successful in negotiating the release of the missionaries and later the British businessman from Tehran. Then in November, 1984, he was off again, this time to Libya, to negotiate for four more British hostages.

After lengthy face-to-face discussions with Col. Moammar Kadafi, he got his men again. So the reputation of Waite the miracle worker developed. It seemed refreshing evidence that moral purpose, humor and reason could still prevail in a harsh world.

As his renown grew, Waite became a public personality, more easily recognized by the general public than any churchman in Britain. "Who is that man with Terry Waite?" bystanders are reported to have asked on more than one occasion as he accompanied Dr. Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Church of England.

Waite appeared to relish the publicity. Yet he and his family continued to live modestly. Many an opportunity to augment his meager income from the church was declined as inappropriate.

Yet with the Iran arms scandal came accusations that Waite was himself associated with the exchange of arms for hostages. This allegation was followed by the even more extravagant claim from the Palestine Liberation Organization that Waite had handed over $2 million as ransom for American David P. Jacobsen. It was remembered that he had accepted lifts in American military helicopters from Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

None of this has tarnished Waite's reputation for integrity here in Britain. At a press conference in London, he denied any knowledge of the arms deal. The ransom accusation came only after he had himself been taken.

Doubts of another kind have, however, begun to emerge in Britain. Might Waite have been too innocent? Might he have been negotiating away in all seriousness at one level while the real business was being done in murkier depths? Might he have provided, in the case of the hostages in Tehran and Libya, simply an attractive means of presenting to the outside world decisions that had already been taken on other grounds? Might he have been, quite unwittingly, an honorable front for more devious men?

It is impossible to resolve these doubts at this stage. But very few people in Britain suspect Waite of being consciously involved in the Iran arms scandal. The uncertainty relates to the substance of his achievement, but not to the sincerity of his purpose.

Whether a miracle worker or an innocent abroad, Terry Waite has been striving at the deliberate risk of his own life to rescue the victims of terrorism.

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