Addresses of HRH The Prince of Wales and Cardinal Vincent Nichols as they pray at Archbishop’s House
The Prince of Wales today met with Christians from the Middle East at an Advent reception, hosted by Cardinal Vincent Nichols at Archbishop’s House in London.
Representatives from the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Maronite Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Greek Catholic Melkite Churches were present. The Prince also met guests and representatives from charities including Iraqi Christians in Need, Friends of the Holy Land, Aid to the Church in Need and Jesuit Refugee Service. The gathering heard a choral piece by the Chaldean Church’s adult choir and a choral piece by the Chaldean Church’s children’s choir. The event concluded with intercessory prayers for Christians and other minorities suffering persecution in the Middle-East.
HRH The Prince of Wales
Having just come from helping to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the West London Synagogue, it is a very great pleasure to be with you in this season of Advent – a time when we prepare to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. I am so grateful to His Eminence, Cardinal Nichols, for his generosity in hosting this reception at the start of this pontifical Year of Mercy.
Just over two thousand years ago, Christianity was quite literally born in the Middle East. It therefore seems especially fitting that so many representatives of what I might call the “Middle Eastern” churches are gathered here today. Many of your church communities link straight back to the early Church – indeed, if memory serves me correctly, the Coptic Orthodox Church traces its roots right back to Mark the Evangelist!
Tragically, as many of you will know far, far better than me, this remarkable heritage is under threat as never before. Christian communities in various parts of the Middle East are being deliberately targetted by fanatical Islamist militants intent on dividing communities which have lived alongside one another for centuries.
The impact that all this unmentionable violence and cruelty has had on individual lives is utterly heart-breaking. Earlier this year I spent time with three remarkable people who had been subjected to indescribable levels of barbaric horror, including a Jesuit priest working in Homs in Syria and a Chaldean Catholic priest from northern Iraq who had been kidnapped by Da’ish., beaten horribly, threatened daily with beheading, but never, never renounced his faith nor, ladies and gentleman, his extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. Their heart-rending testimonies were a powerful reminder – if, indeed, such a reminder is needed – of the terrifying depths to which people will sink in the name of so-called “faith”.
Of course, I am only too aware that Christians are not the only faith community in this region suffering at the moment. So many of Da’ish’s victims are Muslims. And who can forget the horrific suffering of the Yazidi community in Iraq? Furthermore, the Middle East is not the only part of the world in which Christians are suffering. The third remarkable person I met earlier this year was a fifteen year old Nigerian girl who was abducted by Boko Haram, forced to watch other girls being beheaded or – quite beyond all belief, in terms of depraved cruelty – buried alive with just their heads above ground, exposed to vultures and other birds.
At this traditional time of prayer and reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation, it seems to me vital that we pause for more than a moment to think about the plight of Christians in the lands where the Word was actually “made flesh and dwelt among us”. For, despite what the brainwashed militants would have people believe, Christianity is not a “foreign” religion. As the atmospheric Chapel of St. Ananias in Damascus and countless other holy sites bear witness, Christianity has been part of the rich tapestry of life in the Middle East for two thousand years. And it was the early Middle Eastern church communities in places such as Antioch, Alexandria, Bosra in Syria, and Mesopotamia which eventually brought Christianity to Asia and the West. To take just one example, the Armenian Apostolic Church – which, of course, is the oldest Established national church in the world – traces its origins to the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddaeus. And, ladies and gentleman, it is, perhaps, worth remembering that those of us who are members of the Church of England will be only too familiar with the Nicene Creed, whose words were first formulated in the Middle East in the fourth century. Far from Christianity being a “Western” religion, Christianity was born in – and shaped by – the East…!
This is what makes the plight of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ so especially heart-breaking. Their suffering is symptomatic of a very real crisis which threatens the very existence of Christianity in the land of its birth. In fact, according to Aid to the Church in Need, Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq within five years, unless emergency help is provided on a greatly increased scale at an international level. This affects us all. Consequently, the greatest challenge we face is how to ensure that the spiritual and cultural heritage of Christianity in the Middle East is preserved for future generations – quite apart from doing all we can to provide practical support to those who are persecuted.
I could not be more heartened, therefore, to witness at first-hand the way in which each of your church communities is continuing to live the faith of your Fathers. By protecting the wisdom which has been handed down to you, you are doing your utmost to ensure that there is a future for your children and grandchildren.
Above all, ladies and gentlemen – and however inadequate they may be – my special prayers are with you and all those in the Middle East and elsewhere who suffer iniquitous atrocities and perfidious persecution for whatever faith they may belong to.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
It is my great pleasure, on behalf of all present today, to welcome you and to thank you for this initiative, calling much needed attention to the plight of Christians suffering death and persecution in many countries in the Middle East. We are honoured by your presence and so grateful for your persevering and forthright support for those who are suffering for their Christian faith.
This is not the time or place to go into statistical detail, but the scale of the destruction by the extremist forces of traditions, cultures and their peoples is gradually being more fully understood. The lands of the Middle East are the home of so many ancient religious traditions: Zoroastrians, Yazidis, Mandaens, Druse, Samaritans which are mostly disappearing from that region. And this is dramatically so also of the Christian churches, many represented here this morning.
Christians are being driven from their homes simply because, being Christians, they will not submit to the demands of ISIL. They lose their lives and are properly called martyrs. Here we remember that the proper use of the title martyr never includes a person who kills himself or herself. Many who are not Christians are being slaughtered: indeed the majority are Muslims and Yazidis. But at this time of Christmas and in this country there should be a particular concern for those who suffer for the name of Jesus Christ.
Your Royal Highness, we are so grateful for your insistence in this matter. We thank you for your leadership at a time when our public culture is losing its readiness to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian foundations of our society, while at the same time relying on them for continuing stability. As a society we strive to offer respect to all people, but forget that such respect is due because of the God-given dignity of every human being. We rejoice in the compassion and generosity which characterise this country, but we may fail to remember that they are rooted in Biblical imperatives, just as is our administration of justice. Our tolerance and readiness to make space for each other has its roots in the imperative to forgive those who may offend us. And the trust needed for so many of our transactions is ultimately rooted in the fact that we have one Heavenly Father and that in Him we are brothers and sisters. In nurturing these practical values by which our society strives to live we do well to recognise that our Christian heritage as a huge and powerful resource, and not a problem or an embarrassment, as many voices insist.
Your Royal Highness, in proclaiming clearly the persecution of Christians in other lands we also affirm this faith in our land. To remain silent about this specific persecution is to neglect and weaken the awareness and role of this faith here.
For these reasons we again thank you, Your Royal Highness. We assure you of our prayers and we rejoice that at this Christmas season our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and persecuted will find a special place in the prayers of us all.
Your Highness, we also, warmly, wish you and your family a happy and holy Christmas.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols