KBOO 21 January 1988
Three hundred and sixty-six days ago Terry Waite, the genial and gentle giant who was working so tirelessly and courageously to free Middle East hostages was himself taken hostage. When I talked to the British authorities yesterday there was no news on his whereabouts, indeed no confirmation that he was even still alive. Though, a recently released French hostage thinks that Waite was being held in a room next to his and according to a report in Britain’s ‘Sunday Express’ US National Security officials claim that its Lacrosse satellite positioned permanently over Lebanon spotted the 6’ 8’ bearded Englishman being moved to a medieval prison.
No group has claimed to be holding the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy, perhaps because any group doing so would be universally condemned. Last week an English paper reported that a pro-Iranian leader in Beirut had said that Waite would only be freed when President Raegan left office but this report was immediately disavowed by the man’s office. It is another example of the murky world of Middle East intrigue today as is the revelation earlier this month that the Church of England has been swindled out of twelve thousand pounds by men who claimed to have access to Waite’s captors and promised to arrange a meeting with them. In a frontpage story the English Sunday paper ‘The People’ reported that the meeting never took place because the whole enterprise was just a ruthless ripoff. The paper said that the hoaxers fooled \Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office and at one time even spoke direct to the Archbishop, Dr Runcie, on his private telephone line.
The British government has been criticized for doing nothing about Waite. This stems in part from its policy of refusing to comment on the case. It is, of course, hard to negotiate when there is no one to negotiate with, but even if there were someone, the British government has consistently said that it would not negotiate with terrorists, and Terry Waite himself, in a memo to his secretary earlier made it clear that if he went missing no one should come after him and no ransom should be paid.
Waite is a modest man despite his achievements. According to an article in ‘The Guardian’ he has shown a reluctance to talk unless it is for the purpose of saving the lives of victims, not to inflate himself. He is not a man, the paper says, who will suddenly lose his sense of identity even if he is in captivity. Friends and colleagues insist that he has enormous reserves of both faith and humor to draw on.
He will surely, in so far as he gets the chance, be able to win ground with his individual captors. He has always believed that it is shortsighted to react to terrorism and not ask what makes these people do what they do. As a deeply religious man he can also identify with the heart of Islam. There were moving glimpses of Waite this past week in the opening frames of the public television production of ‘The Sword of Islam.’ He is seen saying, ‘True Islam does not deprive the innocent of their liberty. True Islam recognizes God-given freedom. True Islam shows justice, mercy, compassion.’
I spoke last night on the phone with Father Jenco, the American who spent nineteen months as a hostage in the Middle east, whose release was negotiated by Waite and who in mid-February will come to live in Portland. He had been yesterday on the Donahue show and CNN News and was happy that he had been able, he felt, to raise the level of concern for those still held hostage. He chafed at the fact that the British government did not seem to be doing anything. There are still more than two dozen hostages in the Middle East, including eight Americans.
Father Jenco had first heard of Terry Waite while still a captive through a radio broadcast describing Waite’s meeting with just released hostage Ben Weir. Father Jenco and his fellow prisoners had written President Reagan, their family, and Archbishop Runcie asking that Waite be allowed to negotiate on their behalf. ‘He became very important to us, ‘ Jenco said. It gave a lift to know that somebody out there was trying to do something. And Waite was there in Damascus to meet Jenco when he was released and accompany him. ‘It was nice to meet the man who had become part of our life,’ he said. Waite had stayed at their Servite monastery in London and joined in the joy of the celebrations there of Jenco’s release. ‘I would love to see him released and be at the celebrations for him, ‘Jenco told me.
On CBS last night another released American hostage, David Jacobsen, said of Waite, ‘God has not put many angels on this earth but when he does, he does it in style.’
In a report to the ‘Orgeon Churchman,’ Canon Samir Habiby says the US Episcopal Church Center talked with Waite three months after his disappearance. The Anglican mediator did not consider himself a hostage, he said, but a guest. The Arab custom, Habiby explained, was to offer a guest a cup of coffee when they came to visit, and it was rude to leave before the second cup of coffee, Waite had not yet been offered a second cup.
It must be the most long-awaited and greatly overdue cup on record.