British church envoy Terry Waite left Lebanon for New York Sunday expressing optimism about his mission to mediate the release of American hostages -- but cautioning that there is still a long way to go. The Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy arrives in New York today for an expected two days of talks with Reagan administration and church officials. Mr. Waite then plans to return to Beirut via London for a third round of contacts with the kidnappers, believed to be Shiite Muslim fundamentalists.
``I need to know very clearly the answer to certain questions which I have already put to officials of the American administration. And there are further questions that I will put to them and further information I'd like to share,'' Waite said in an interview shortly before his departure from west Beirut's Commodore hotel. The Church of England envoy had been marooned at the hotel since last Thursday as violent street battles between Druze and Shiite militiamen raged all around.
Waite has held several clandestine face-to-face meetings with the kidnappers and has surrounded the substance of those discussions with equal secrecy.
``If I were to be indiscreet or to give indications as to what passed between us, I think I would put myself in danger of having contacts broken,'' he said. ``And if I were to go further than that, I've no doubt at all that lives would be lost.''
The kidnappers, calling themselves the Islamic Jihad, are known to have demanded the release of 17 Muslim extremists jailed in Kuwait for their part in bomb attacks there, including the December 1983 attacks on the US and French embassies. Waite became involved after four American hostages sent a letter last month to Archbishop Robert Runcie and President Reagan asking for help.
The US hostages are Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson; a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco; Thomas Sutherland, dean of the agriculture faculty at American University of Beirut; and that university's hospital administrator, David Jacobsen. Another American, Peter Kilburn, librarian at American University, has been missing since 1984, but there has been no mention of him for months.
``I think we'll come back [to Lebanon] with enough to keep us moving, which is important at this stage,'' Waite said before making a dash for Beirut airport during a lull in the fighting. He said that the negotiations so far have left him ``hopeful and encouraged,'' but that ``a great deal more work still remains to be done before success can be expected.''
Waite revealed that he has been working intensively on the hostage question since February, although his role only hit the headlines with his first arrival in Lebanon Nov. 13. He also confirmed that he played a part in the release of another American hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian minister whose surprise journey to freedom in September remains cloaked in secrecy.
Waite described the fact that he had been able to come to Beirut and hold direct talks with the kidnappers as a ``major breakthrough.'' He said that building ``a level of responsible trust between us is a fundamental and major step -- absolutely critical.'' Progress is being made, he said, but he added that ``there are very complicated questions to be worked out and a lot of dangers.'' He said it was impossible to put any time frame on the hoped-for suc-cess of his mission.
The six-foot-seven lay preacher came to Beirut armed only with the support of Archbishop Runcie and his own reputation as the man who negotiated freedom for missionaries detained in Iran and Britons held in Libya. His past experience has clearly stood him in good stead on a mission that he insists demands much more than simply acting as an ecclesiastical mailman.
``It's creative mediation,'' he said. ``Within the context of the discussions, we have to work out how to get through this problem. You have to face an element of personal risk and at the same time think on your feet, and noboby else will do it for you. There's nobody to consult with. It's a lonely and difficult job.''
In terms of complication and delicacy, Waite believes all three missions -- in Iran, Libya, and now Lebanon -- have presented equal difficulties with the same cycles of hopes raised and then dashed. But in Lebanon, there is a level of physical danger and chaos that he had not encountered before.
``This is an extremely serious situation. It is not fun and games. If anyone cuts across my path, tries to follow me, or tries to spring the hostages, then I am quite convinced they will be killed, and probably I would lose my life as well,'' he said.
The more arbitrary dangers of Beirut were illustrated forcefully by the fact that Waite found himself pinned down in the Commodore Hotel for three days by the violent inter-militia battles. At one stage, the hotel itself became a firing position for Druze militiamen, one of whom joked with the envoy: ``Don't get yourself kidnapped, Mr. Waite.''
``Another significant difference,'' said Waite, ``is that in Iran and Libya, there were identifiable persons to deal with -- Col. [Muammar] Qaddafi and Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini -- and structure of government that enabled you to work clearly. Here it's very much more diffuse, there are so many different groups, and the first problem is trying to identify and then make contact with the people you want to see.''
In all three cases, the Christian found himself trying to persuade Muslims to free the Westerners they held. But he believes his religious affiliation is ``a distinct advantage,'' reassuring his interlocutors that he is independent from government and acting purely out of disinterested humanitarian motives.
``Strangely enough, they don't regard me with more suspicion because I'm a Christian,'' he said. ``They're prepared to trust me because they know I won't be a party to any dirty tricks.''
In the case of Beirut, he has been dealing with men widely seen in the West as ruthless fanatics who say they have killed at least one hostage, US Embassy official William Buckley.
``But I find I can relate to them,'' said Waite. ``There is a remarkable dichotomy in some people one deals with -- on the one hand capable of very great kindness and, almost at the same moment, capable of absolute cruelty. I suppose that's true of us all, but in these people, it's shown very dramatically.
``The approach I always take is to try to build trust and to bring out the best side in people. If you give them a chance to display the best side, they sometimes take it. This is fundamental to this work.''