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Justin Welby: Archbishop blindfolded by rebels with Kalashnikovs on jungle mercy mission

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  • The Right Reverend Justin Welby was arrested by the Nigerian army whilst on a peace mission
  • He was headhunted to carry out peace missions abroad for the church

By George Arbuthnott and Adam Luck

PUBLISHED: 17:34 EST, 10 November 2012 | UPDATED: 08:53 EST, 11 November 2012

Soldiers with machine guns circled in helicopters as rebels blindfolded Justin Welby, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, bundled him into a speedboat and took the mild-mannered Old Etonian into the heart of Nigeria’s darkness.

Although in extreme danger, the bespectacled father of five remained ‘completely relaxed’, according to a colleague who was with him on the peace mission for a church body.

On another occasion, fresh from negotiating with Al Qaeda operatives, the Right Rev Welby was arrested by the Nigerian army.

God's work: Justin Welby in Kaduna, Nigeria where he was arrested by the Nigerian Army

God's work: Justin Welby in Kaduna, Nigeria where he was arrested by the Nigerian Army

As he heard shouting and pounding footsteps of soldiers storming up the stairs, he spoke calmly down the phone to a colleague. ‘I’m going to count to ten and when I finish, they’ll be here. Don’t worry, I’ll leave my phone on, so I can be traced,’ he crisply informed Canon Dr Stephen Davis, who was on the other end of the line in Britain.

He then completed the countdown, placed the muted phone in his pocket and passively accepted the rough shoves of his captors as they bundled him out of the building.

Only hours later the former oil executive was located and released at the embarrassed behest of the Nigerian authorities, desperate not to lose one of their most prized peace negotiators.

That incident, in 2005, was just one of an array of extraordinary secret acts of courage which mark out Justin Welby as a remarkable resolver of conflicts.

Dr Welby has had to shake hands with warlords, negotiate with kidnappers and endure multiple arrests in some of the most dangerous warzones in the world, where the slightest mistake could have seen him lose his life.

 Welby's friend and colleague, Dr Stephen Davis, who was out there with him has sent them to us. MOS COLLECTS

Into danger: Justin Welby negotiated with the Ogoni militia, pictured during surrender discussions with Justin Welby in the Niger Delta in 2004

For two years Dr Welby and Dr Davis were regularly blindfolded by militants and taken in speedboats into the blood-soaked creeks of the Niger Delta

They were seeking a reconciliation between oil giant Shell and the Ogoni people in south-east Nigeria. The Ogoni had been locked in a bitter  battle – which is claimed to have  ultimately cost the lives of up to 100,000 people – with Shell, which was accused of polluting the land and encouraging human rights abuses.

Dr Davis recalled: ‘Before taking us into the creeks, the militants blindfolded Justin and I, just as they did to almost all Westerners for fear of their positions being given away.

‘But Justin was completely relaxed about it, despite the fact we were heading into fierce fighting.

Nailed it: The Archbishop of Canturbury designate wars a cross made from nails found in Coventry Cathedral after it was bomber in WWII

Nailed it: The Archbishop of Canturbury designate wars a cross made from nails found in Coventry Cathedral after it was bomber in WWII

‘All that mattered to him was that he was doing God’s work.

‘I remember also paddling a canoe down the river with military helicopters threatening us with their machine guns from above. Again it didn’t faze him. The whole point of Justin’s work has been to enter conflicts where no one else would dare set foot.

‘It is there that Justin sees opportunities for bringing about peace. He’ll put his neck on the line to deliver it and he treats everyone the same – whether they be a rebel leader or a president. Then just as the cameras roll in, he’ll stand back and let the locals take the credit.’

Dr Davis, former Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral, accompanied Dr Welby on many of his most intrepid expeditions.

At the time of their work in Nigeria locals armed with guns, grenades and bazookas were fighting running  battles in the creeks against the military who are said to have bombed the settlements and rained machine gun fire down from helicopters.

Kidnapping of Westerners was also rife, with ransoms as high as £300,000 being demanded. The President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Ledum Mitee, said: ‘Justin showed extraordinary courage. He was staying at the luxury Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt, which was a three-hour boat ride from the creeks. Going in there must have been like going from Heaven into Hell. Though I never did see him take his dog collar off.’

Dr Welby’s arrest in Nigeria came when he was negotiating with three Al Qaeda terrorist cells which had sprung up in the north of the country, said Dr Davis.

He said the key reason for his friend’s quick release was because the Nigerian government needed Welby to continue his critical role in negotiating the removal of the  Liberian warlord Charles Taylor from Nigeria.

Thumbs up: Justin Welby shares his joy over the announcement that he is to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury as he poses outside a press conference with his wife Caroline

Thumbs up: Justin Welby shares his joy over the announcement that he is to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury as he poses outside a press conference with his wife Caroline

‘We had built up so much trust with the local leaders that we were able to use that to secure Justin’s release,’ he said. ‘Of course, I’d already had to inform his wife that Justin had been arrested once again. It certainly wasn’t the first time.’

Forged in crucibles of war in both Africa and the Middle East, the diplomatic skills of Dr Welby will be tested to the full now he is poised to lead a church riven by divisions over gay marriage and female bishops, as well as haemorrhaging congregation and funds alike.

A BIT OF A GOODY-GOODY AT ETON

Justin Welby was viewed as a ‘goody-goody’ during his schooldays at Eton.

Dr Welby, who attended the school between 1969 and 1974 has rejected criticism that too many Old Etonians are in top posts.

He said: ‘I think it is not where you went to school, it is what you make of it.’

Contemporaries described him as ‘a decent bloke, but a bit of a goody-goody’.

And his former housemaster Francis Gardner, 84, said: ‘He did not play a big part in the school. If I had selected five pupils who would have followed his path, I would not have picked him, others were more God-like.

‘But he is very capable – he is a good fitter-in.’

The 56-year-old, officially named as the new Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday, will replace the retiring Rowan Williams in March after a speedy rise from comparative obscurity.

Dr Welby, currently the Bishop of Durham, was ordained in 1992 after a successful career as an oil industry executive.

He was working in the small Warwickshire town of Southam when he was headhunted for his role on church peace missions, which set him on the road to Lambeth Palace.

Canon Andrew White, who led the International Centre for Reconciliation at nearby Coventry Cathedral, talent-spotted Welby after visiting him at his vicarage.

Canon White, who is now based in Baghdad, said: ‘It was obvious that he was of a different calibre from everyone else. He was a man who could make things happen.

‘Most people cannot make things happen but Justin was someone who could bring about change. I went back to the Bishop and said that I wanted him for the ICR.’

Canon White and Dr Welby then visited Nigeria, which Welby knew from his work as an oil executive, to try to mediate between warring Christian and Muslim communities in Kaduna, which had been riven with religious disputes. Describing the work, Dr Welby has said:  ‘On three occasions it looked like I was going to get killed. One plan was to shoot me.’

Helping hand: The Rt Rev Justin Welby, seen today launching a scheme to supply food to struggling people, was headhunted for church peace missions abroad

Headhunted help: The Rt Rev Justin Welby, seen today launching a scheme to supply food to struggling people, was headhunted for church peace missions abroad

Canon White said: ‘All the time we were faced with serious threats. I cannot remember everything that Justin went through but I have been held at gunpoint, kidnapped, thrown into rooms with chopped off toes and fingers all over the floor and the same kind of things would have happened to Justin.

‘I saw many times in Nigeria, quite often with people who hated each other and had been trying to kill each other, [how] Justin would bring them together. So much of his work is hearing the stories of others and moving forward with it.

‘He never decided what someone was like before he had met them. He was always ready to find out himself what they were like, willing to work with them and listen to them.’

THE BETS ARE OFF

Bishop Justin Welby yesterday urged people who made money by betting on his appointment to donate it to the church following suspicions that clergy had taken advantage of insider knowledge.

He used Twitter to say: ‘Thought in the night, those who made money betting on me give it to their local church!’

On Wednesday, two days before Bishop Welby’s appointment was announced, two bookmakers suspended betting when a surge of money was placed Dr Welby.

Ladbrokes said it was sending a £1,000 cheque to Canterbury Cathedral.

He added: ‘I remember both of us walking through the ashes of a theological college in Kaduna.

‘It had been burnt down a few days before during an attack across the area, which had left many dead. One of the Nigerian pastors who came with us only had one hand because the other had been chopped off.’

In 2002, Dr Welby became the Canon of Coventry – he wears a cross made of nails found in the city’s cathedral after it was bombed in the Second World War.

The following year, he was in Baghdad in the aftermath of the invasion, trying to stop the divided Sunni and Shia communities from turning on one another in the wake of Saddam’s downfall. Canon White said: ‘We went to the home of the Shia Grand Ayatollah. We would take the Sunni leaders and talk for hours, along with the Christian leaders.’

They also found themselves trying to secure the release of hostages, which often presented the British clerics with the twin problems of byzantine negotiations and terrible personal danger.

Canon White said: ‘There have been times where we were asked to do really dangerous things such as hostage negotiations. The kind of people who take hostages in general are quite nasty people. This is really serious life and death. The kind of reconciliation we were involved in was not eating smoked salmon and drinking cups of tea in Golders Green.

‘You could not do it if you were frightened because you could be killed at any time. But I never saw any fear in Justin: not one iota.’

HIS £2,000-A-MONTH FRENCH HOME FOR HIRE

A six-bedroom rural retreat in France belonging to Dr Welby is being advertised to holiday renters for up to £2,000 a month.

Le Bas Tertre (‘Low Mound’) in Normandy has all mod cons, including a dishwasher, and is built from centuries-old stone. It boasts traditional features such as a wood burner and open fires and includes a two-bedroom cottage in the grounds.

There is a table tennis table in the conservatory, an outdoor dining area, and parking for up to eight cars. 

In spite of the high cost of renting in the peak season, Dr Welby says he makes only about £3,500 on it in a good year and he has been trying to sell it.

Clergy often buy second homes because they lose their tied houses when they retire.

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