A year after the Rev. Terry Waite was kidnapped in Beirut, British authorities appear helpless to secure his freedom. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government has rejected negotiations and no communications have been received from the Church of England envoy or from his captors. The drawn-out kidnapping of a man highly respected for his courage and negotiating skills has left many people here worried about his prospects - and of the prospects of at least 16 other Westerners missing in Lebanon.
Critics of the British government's policy of refusing to comment on Mr. Waite's case have accused the government of indifference. They also have faulted the allies with hostages in Lebanon - the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and West Germany - for failing to adopt a common approach to the problem.
``It is time to stop waiting for the captors themselves to decide when to free Terry Waite and the hostages he cared so much about that he risked his life to free them,'' wrote Charles Glass in the Independent newspaper yesterday. Mr. Glass is an American journalist who himself was held captive for 62 days last summer.
As an envoy of the Church of England, Waite was captured on, Jan. 20, 1987, while on a mission to free two American hostages. These included Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and the longest-held hostage, and Tom Sutherland, dean of the School of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut. Mr. Anderson was kidnapped in March 1985 and Mr. Sutherland in June 1985.
Last weekend the Sunday Express, a London tabloid newspaper, quoted a pro-Iranian religious leader in Beirut as saying that only when President Reagan left the White House would there be any consideration of the terms of release for Waite and other hostages. After it appeared in print, the Beirut office of religious leader Sheik Muhammad Fadalallah disavowed the alleged telephone interview and insisted it was fabricated. It was one more instance of the rumors and uncertainties that have surrounded Waite's kidnapping for the past 12 months.
The identity of Waite's captors is not clear but Beirut military leaders have said he is being held by the pro-Iranian Hizbullah or Party of God. Tehran radio said last March that he was taken by the Revolutionary Justice Organization, the same pro-Iranian group with which the French government arranged the release of two French hostages last November.
The Church of England has been stymied and embarrassed in its efforts to make contact with Waite's captors.
Taken in by a confidence trick last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, admitted recently that he had paid $21,600 to two men who claimed they had connections in Beirut and could arrange a meeting with the kidnappers. No meeting was held and the men disappeared with the cash.
Robert Auque, a French hostage released in November, said he was almost certain that Waite was being held next door to his own room turned jail cell. It was the most reliable report yet that Waite was still alive.
A vigil is scheduled this evening at Waite's local church in south London to mark the first anniversary of his disappearance.