LONDON - Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, Tuesday highlighted the resilience of embattled Christians in the Middle East during a special service in Westminster Abbey, focusing on their plight in a region that’s turned increasingly harsh for Christianity.
In a message of hope, Prince Charles said he had been privileged to have met so many “with such inspiring faith and courage” who were battling oppression and persecution, or who have fled to escape it. And he made a plea for peace, saying “extremism and division” are not inevitable.
“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 neighbors and friends,” he said.
“Indeed, I know that in Lebanon, Muslims join Christians at the Shrine of our Lady of Lebanon to honor her together. And I know that there are Muslim faith leaders who have spoken out in defense of Christian communities and of their contribution to the region.”
His remarks from the abbey’s pulpit were made during a service attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as well as Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, including four patriarchs from the Middle East.
“All three of the great Abrahamic faiths believe in a loving, just and merciful God who cares for creation, who cares for his creatures and who expects us to care for one another,” he said.
Prince Charles has for many years encouraged interfaith dialogue and more recently has expressed alarm about the challenges facing Christians in the region, especially their prospects in Syria and Iraq.
Tuesday marked the first time he has spoken from the pulpit on the subject during a church service.
The service at the abbey had a dual aim — to celebrate the contribution Christians make to the region but also to publicize the dangers they face.
Earlier this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that Christians are on the brink of extinction in the Middle East, due to the threat of violence, murder, intimidation, prejudice and poverty. They are enduring “the worst situation since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century,” he said.
In the last few years, he said, Christians have been “butchered by Islamic State, and in many countries they find themselves squeezed between the upper and lower millstones of pressure from the society and the conflicts that bother the region.” He noted Iraq’s Christian population has decreased by half since 2003.
Archbishop Welby wrote in Britain's The Sunday Telegraph newspaper: “Whether in large and flourishing communities, such as in Lebanon or Egypt, or smaller, struggling churches, they need the protection and encouragement of governments and people at home and abroad, and foreign popular expression. Without this, they cannot live out their vocation as citizens of their native lands in cooperation with other religious groups.”
A series of recent reports also have highlighted the predicament of Middle East Christians. Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic aid organization, documented significant violations of religious freedom in 38 countries, with many of the abuses caused by the spread of militant Islamism in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The charity estimates that the Christian population in Syria has fallen dramatically since 2011, from 1.4 million to an estimated 450,000, with many fleeing as their churches have been destroyed. IS both in Syria and Iraq targeted Christians, subjecting them to atrocities, forcible conversion and enslavement.
At the height of the Syrian conflict, Christian refugees in southeast Turkey — many of whom were retreading the steps of their forebears who fled persecution in southern Turkey during the last century — said they often were seen as fair game by an assortment of jihadists and Islamist rebels.
Some refugees said Christians were targeted because they were seen as being pro-Assad, although some of the persecution was motivated by greed, they said, with the better off being targeted first and their property divided by powerful local Sunni Muslim families.
In neighboring Iraq, the Christian minority made up of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs began to leave the country even before the appearance of IS. In the 1990s, hostility from the government of Saddam Hussein — and after his fall, sectarian killings and bombings, along with an increasingly aggressive Islamist political culture — forced two-thirds of Iraq's Christians to flee overseas, slashing the population from a pre-Saddam estimate of 1.5 million to 300,000 today.
With the advance by IS militants into the Nineveh plains, the original Assyrian heartland where Christians speak Assyrian as their first language and Arabic their second, the exodus accelerated, according to local Christians. The Nineveh plains are where Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert to Christianity, is thought to have preached the Gospel, sent there by one of the apostles, Thomas.
Prince Charles highlighted the Nineveh plains in his remarks, saying earlier this year he had met a Dominican Sister from Nineveh who, in 2014, as IS advanced on the town of Qaraqosh, “got behind the wheel of a minibus crammed full of her fellow Christians and drove the long and dangerous road to safety.”
He added: “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. ... 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.”