Say a prayer for Christians in the Middle East
I have for some time now been deeply troubled by the growing difficulties faced by Christian communities in various parts of the Middle East. It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that they are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants. Christianity was, literally, born in that part of the world and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ. Their church communities link us straight back to the early Church, as I was reminded by hearing Aramaic, Our Lord’s own language, spoken and sung in visits to churches earlier this week.
Yet, today, the Middle East and North Africa has the lowest concentration of Christians in the world – just 4 per cent of the population. It is clear that the number has dropped dramatically over the last century, and is falling still further.
This has an effect on all of us, although, of course, primarily on those Christians who can no longer continue to live in the Middle East: we all lose something immensely and irreplaceably precious when such a rich tradition – dating back 2,000 years – begins to disappear. It comprises a rich panoply of church life, including the Antiochian, Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches, the Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as the Church of the East, and Churches established, dare I say it, somewhat more recently, including the Anglican Church.
In saying all this about the difficulties facing these Christian churches I am, of course, conscious that they are not the only faith community in this region suffering at the moment. Nor is the Middle East the only part of the world in which Christians are suffering. But, given the particularly acute circumstances they face, I feel it worthwhile to draw attention to their current plight. It is important to note, above all, that the decline of Christians in the region represents a major blow to peace, as they are part of the fabric of society, often acting as bridge-builders between other communities. This crucial role throughout Middle Eastern society is one recognised by many Muslims (who are not extremists) both Shia or Sunni, who attest to the fact that Christians are their friends and that their communities are needed.
Jordan has set a wonderful example in this regard and, as my wife and I saw for ourselves during our visit earlier this year, has again taken in a huge number of refugees, this time from Syria during the present troubles. Moreover, under His Majesty King Abdullah II’s leadership, Jordan is a most heartening and courageous witness to the fruitful tolerance and respect between faith communities.
For 20 years, I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The point though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where the bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so – and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organised persecution – including of Christian communities.
Let us remember we are talking about Arab Christians – Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi Christians, as well as those from other Arab countries and from Iran – not Western Christians living in the Middle East.
Now is the time to redouble our combined efforts to stress what binds the three Abrahamic faiths together and, as Christians, Jews and Muslims, to express outrage at what tears us asunder. Surely there is no better time to do so than at Christmas – to remind all of us that an emphasis on love of our neighbours and doing to others as we would have them do to us are the ultimate foundations of truth, justice, compassion and human rights. Such profound wisdom is at the very heart of all three religions, however obscured the message may have become.
My prayer at this time is for all beleaguered communities and I believe that Western Christians ought to pray earnestly for fellow-believers in the Middle East. I am reminded that Tuesday in the Eastern Christian calendar was the festival of Daniel and the three boys in the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They symbolise all those who are persecuted for their faith. But the important point is: they survived.
This is an edited version of an address given to religious leaders at Clarence House. Earlier this week the Prince of Wales and Prince Ghazi of Jordan visited the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre in Stevenage and the Syrian Orthodox Church in London. Prince Ghazi of Jordan is chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs to the King of Jordan