Yesterday, Westminster Abbey saw a series of firsts – the first time that the Prince of Wales has given an address during a service; the first time the heir to the throne has voiced his concerns for Middle Eastern Christians in a royal peculiar; the first time senior figures from all manner of often rivalrous Middle Eastern Churches have united for a service; the first time ancient Aramaic and Coptic have been chanted in England’s greatest abbey church.
In his impassioned plea, the Prince praised Middle Eastern Christians for their “truly remarkable strength of the Faith”. He said he had met “many Christians who, with such inspiring faith and courage, are battling oppression and persecution, or who have fled to escape it. 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.” He paid tribute to Muslim faith leaders who had spoken in defence of Christian communities and of their contribution to the region, adding: “Coexistence and understanding are not just possible, therefore; they are confirmed by hundreds of years of shared experience. Extremism and division are by no means inevitable.”
Following him, Archbishop Justin Welby added: “When the Church of Jesus Christ is attacked, it is an attack on Christ Himself,” but that “distance and ignorance take away the pain we should feel” when this happens. He appeared to suggest that Western governments should offer asylum to more Middle Eastern Christians. In the context of such Christians’ obedience he said: “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, rejoice in liberation.”
A Catholic nun from northern Iraq, to whom the Prince had been introduced earlier this year, told the abbey congregation of the struggle to rebuild life post-ISIS and said “our government and our Muslim neighbours” needed to be serious about promoting reconciliation; and a senior Scottish imam praised Arab Christians’ contribution to Arab culture and stressed: “If there is to be peace in the Middle East, Christians must be part of the solution.”
What neither Charles nor Welby could have mentioned, given the sensitivities of their roles, was that the political decisions that have made some Christian communities in the Middle East question their long-term future in the region were made only a few hundred metres away, in the Houses of Parliament. Archbishop Welby mentioned our “ignorance” of the Christians’ plight and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, accused the international community of “ignoring” the pressure faced by many Middle Eastern Christians. But the act that destabilised the region and shattered the Pax Romana under which Iraqi Christians had lived for decades, leading to their brutal scapegoating as alleged fifth-columnists for the invading “Christian” forces, was one in which we were complicit: the invasion of their country in 2003.
Similarly, Archbishop Welby referred to “the martyrs on the beach in Libya” – true, their videoed beheading in 2015 was ISIS at its gory worst. But what pushed Libya into a lawless wasteland where jihadis could abduct and murder with impunity was the 2011 overthrow of President Gaddafi, led by UK and French forces.
Nonetheless the Prince’s involvement yesterday, with the archbishop, in the abbey, placed the usually marginalised issue of Middle Eastern Christians firmly on the agenda of the secular media and of politicians and peers. And the Middle Eastern Patriarchs and archbishops had the opportunity to meet ministers from DfID and the Foreign Office. The Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London said the meeting “addressed the existential issues” felt by Middle Eastern clergy, as well as their expectations of Britain’s Middle East policy on issues such as aid and asylum places for their beleaguered flocks. Britain has offered very few asylum places, either to Christian Iraqis or to Christian Syrians, as Daniel Johnson pointed out yesterday. Some have been too scared to register as refugees in UN camps, which has also disqualified them from receiving aid, because they are scared to live among Muslims in case any are IS sympathisers. It should be possible to find ways for Christians to register for asylum, but solutions are more easily found around one table than in angry news reporting.
It is to be hoped that this dialogue continues, and accelerates the momentum created by the Prince of Wales and Archbishop Welby to date. For the last six years Prince Charles has visited and addressed and encouraged UK-based congregations of Eastern churches: the Coptic Orthodox in Stevenage, the Syriac Orthodox in Acton, the Chaldean Catholics in Ealing; the Armenian Orthodox in Kensington, the Melkite congregation in Pimlico. Each Advent, he has spent time with members of these congregations, absorbing their musical and cultural offerings and listening to stories of refugees who have lost homes and loved ones to extremist violence.
Archbishop Welby, for his part, has also voiced his concerns for Middle Eastern Christians publicly and privately, as have other bishops, Anglican and Catholic. Yet when Welby tried to help one asylum-seeker privately, his efforts failed; the man’s appeals were refused and he has had to leave the country.
For while Tuesday evening was a first, such a large-scale feat will probably not become a regular fixture. The heir to the throne said only last month that he acknowledged that when he became king he would have to adopt the political neutrality demanded of the monarch. Even without mentioning UK foreign policy it is difficult to raise the issue of Middle Eastern Christians without such an act being interpreted politically. After that he, and the Middle Eastern Christians he is trying to safeguard, will have to rely on behind-the-scenes interventions.