Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, spoke out for Christians in the Middle East last night (Tuesday) during a special service in Westminster Abbey, London. The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, was amongst more than a dozen church leaders representing the region’s Christian churches at the service. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, preached a sermon in which he called on Christians outside the area to do what they could to “welcome the afflicted, pray for the suffering, stand with those in torment [and] rejoice in liberation.
For a number of years, the Prince of Wales has used Advent to highlight the plight of Christians in the Middle East and has visited a number of British-based local churches with Middle Eastern origins, including the Iraqi Chaldean Christian Community and the Syrian Orthodox Church in Acton, West London; the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Stevenage, Hertfordshire; and the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church in Pimlico. In Easter this year he recorded an Easter Message in which he noted how “deeply moved and humbled” he had been by “the remarkable courage and selfless capacity for forgiveness shown by Christians who suffer so much for their faith”, according to an introductory note in the order of service.
He was a theme he returned to last night. Delivering a reflection, he told the congregation at Westminster Abbey of the “great privilege” he had in meeting “so many Christians who, with such inspiring faith and courage, are battling oppression and persecution, or who have fled to escape it.”
He said: “Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much.
“Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage; of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you; of determination that love will triumph over hate. It is one thing to believe in God who forgives; it is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, ‘those who trespass against you’ so grievously.
“So, in coming together today, we can only give thanks for the truly remarkable strength of the Faith with which so many Christians face persecution, and which gives them the courage and the determination to endure, and to overcome. They are an inspiration to the whole church, and to all people of goodwill.”
He spoke of his meeting with a Dominican Sister from Nineveh who got behind the wheel of a minibus “crammed full of her fellow Christians, and drove the long and dangerous road to safety” when Deash extremists advanced on the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh in 2014. “Like the 100,000 other Christians who were forced from the Nineveh Plains by Daesh that year, they left behind the ruins of their homes and churches, and the shattered remnants of their communities”, he said.
“The Sister told me, movingly, of her return to Nineveh with her fellow Sisters three years later, and of their despair at the utter destruction they found there. But like so many others, they put their Faith in God, and today the tide has turned – nearly half of those displaced having gone back, to rebuild their homes and their communities. Churches, schools, orphanages and businesses are rising from the rubble, and the fabric of that society, which had been so cruelly torn apart, is being gradually repaired.
“This is the most wonderful testament to the resilience of humanity, and to the extraordinary power of faith to resist even the most brutal efforts to extinguish it. . .
“Throughout history, in these lands which are the cradle of faith for Jews, Muslims and Christians, communities of different beliefs have shown that it is possible to live side by side as neighbours and friends.”
He concluded: “In this season of Advent, as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself knew exile, injustice and suffering, I can only assure you of our steadfast support and most heartfelt prayers as you take forward your works of restoration, justice and healing, so that God’s will might be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
One of the nuns that Prince Charles spoke about, Sister Nazek Matty, Dominican Sister of St Catherine of Sienna in Iraq, was at the service. She gave a reflection in which she spoke about how, since Christianity emerged in the Middle East, “Christians have tried to live and preach the love of God that was manifested on the Cross.”
She said: “For centuries, Christians extended bridges between the Roman and the Persian empires, between the Greek and the Arab Muslim cultures, between the East and the West. They were convinced that enlightened hearts and minds open to wisdom and knowledge were the best ways to reach the other, and they became known in their countries as peaceful and trustworthy people.
“That did not mean that Christians were always esteemed for their truthfulness. Waves of persecution, over the centuries, targeting the identity of Christians and their sense of belonging, made Christians doubt that they would ever live in peace in their own homeland. More recently the violent invasion of the Plain of Nineveh by ISIS [Daesh] and the wave of destruction left behind have deeply wounded the Christian community.
“As part of this wounded community, the Dominican Sisters, who were forced to leave their convents, now hope for restoration and healing. With our people, we still believe that our mission is to extend bridges between the past and the future. That is why we returned to the Plain of Nineveh with all the doubts and fears in our hearts.
“Truthfully the return of Christians, despite everything, is based upon our determination to live our beliefs and traditions in the place where we belong, and where we feel deeply connected to our roots.
“Having returned, we realise how threatened our Christian community is by the uncertainty that permeates all aspects of our lives. Now more than ever we need serious initiatives for reconciliation from our government and our Muslim neighbours.”
Since returning, the Sisters have opened educational projects including kindergartens and schools. “With the help of many people of good will, including Christian and other NGOs, we have been able to restore our institutions”, she said. “It is here that human values are cultivated and dignity is respected. Yet, we believe that the restoration of our community greatly depends on our trust in the risen Lord who promised to be with us always. I would like to end with an appeal for respect for the uniqueness of the Middle Eastern culture, which will definitely help Christianity to thrive and flourish.”
Imam Maulana Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, the Director General and Chief Imam of the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society, gave a reflection in which he spoke of the long positive history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East, leading up to more recent times when “Christians have contributed to reconciliation, dialogue and education, both in Iraq and Lebanon”, he said. Christian schools and hospitals are generally esteemed for their high quality.
“From Jordan I have received numerous reports of how instrumental they are in providing humanitarian aid in the refugee crisis that followed ISIS’ [Daesh’s] campaign.
“If there is to be peace in the Middle East, Christians must be a part of the solution. There is an old Arab saying that says hearts touch hearts. The power of the human heart to revive faith even in the worst of conditions is nothing short of miraculous.”
Archbishop Justin began his sermon with a powerful message from 1 Corinthians: “when the church of Jesus Christ is attacked, it is an attack on Christ Himself”, he said. “When any part of the church suffers, we also suffer, and yet distance and ignorance take away the pain we should feel.”
He continued: “Today, we must open ourselves afresh to the pain of those caught up in a region of suffering. Each place in the region is different. In some the Christian community flourishes. In others it is under terrible threat. Yet across the Middle East each church has members who face pressure. And they feel the pain. We too often only see the struggle at a distance, across a chasm.”
The Gospel reading, read in Arabic by Archbishop Suheil, was taken from Luke 8: 16-21 – “no one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar”.
Addressing Christians from the region, Archbishop Justin said: “the purpose of a light is to draw attention, and the purpose of the intention is to find hope and direction. Your light has indeed shone.
“One thinks of the martyrs on the beach in Libya, of those countless killed in Iraq and Syria, of the faithfulness of Christians in parts of the region that are secure and stable, who have maintained their worship, welcomed their refugee brothers and sisters in Christ, for example in Jordan and Lebanon, and thus shone a light around the world.
“How should we respond to that light? We should do so by being drawn towards it, to stand with those who shine it, to remember it and to learn the lesson that comes from it. For that is the light of obedience. It is the obedience of the Christians across the region, in good places and bad, who through their obedience are children of God, are brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ.”
He continued: “As indeed are we. And if our relationship to those brothers and sisters is genuine, then we must in this service commit ourselves not to rest until in obedience we build bridges to those who are isolated by suffering.
“Obedience is the proper response to the revelation of God, acting in a way that pursues the values and the aims and the calling of the Kingdom of God. Obedience for Christians outside the Middle East and outside areas of persecution is to ensure that governments, that households, that societies welcome the afflicted, pray for the suffering, stand with those in torment [and] rejoice in liberation.”
The service had an ecumenical and Middle-Eastern flavour: music was led by the choirs of the London based Coptic Diocese and Syriac Orthodox Church; and prayers were led by Archimandrite Shafiq Abouzayd of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church; Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church; and the Church of England’s Bishop of Loughborough, Guli-Francis-Dehqani, a native of Iran and daughter of the former Bishop of Iran, Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, and whose brother was murdered by Iranian agents in 1980.
After the service, she Tweeted: “On my way home after a moving and extraordinary service at Westminster Abbey giving thanks for Christians in the Middle East. It was a joy and privilege to represent Iran where my heart still is.”
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Patriarch Theophilos III, gave the concluding reflection, speaking of the history of Christians in the region. “It is not possible to really understand the Middle East without understanding the place that Christians hold in our region”, he said. “We are natives of the land, a land that has been watered not only by the blood of many martyrs, but by the blood of the greatest of martyrs, Our Lord Jesus Christ himself. From the revealing of the Church at Pentecost in Jerusalem until now, Christians around the world have called this region home, and it is very important to us that this home is kept open to all.
“We rejoice in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious landscape of the Middle East, and we delight in the richness of the heritage that has helped to shape world history and civilisation. There is room for all in our region, and we are the heirs of a spirit of mutual respect, mutual understanding, and mutual affection that we strive to ensure characterises our common life together.
“Being honest, though, this long tradition today is under huge pressure. Christians in particular are facing unprecedented challenges and difficulties that the rest of the world cannot ignore. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is the Mother of all the Churches, along with the other Churches and Christian communities of the region, are committed to the wellbeing and flourishing of the Christian presence not for ourselves alone, but for the sake of our society, and for the sake of the world, and all who look to the Holy Land in hope.”
He continued: “As we gather in this great church to celebrate the contributions of Christians in the Middle East, may we remember that we gathered not for reasons of politics or economics, nor for any human purpose. We gather because we are inspired by the most fundamental longing: that great yearning of humankind for union with God.
“The witness of the Christians of the Middle East keeps the way to that longing for God open to all.”