Prince Charles and solidarity with Christians in the Middle East

By Harry Hagopian
December 27, 2014

It is not every day that the heir to the British Throne visits an Orthodox Church in London and meets with its clergy and some of its laity. So it is no wonder either that a number of churches, community leaders, organisations, and parishioners were quite excited when HRH Prince Charles decided to visit the Armenian Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Churches during the course of 2014. In the case of the Syriac Church, the Prince of Wales visited them twice in one short year.

But why did he undertake those visits that required a fair bit of organisation and coordination from his team at Clarence House and much anticipation let alone understandable fuss from his hosts? Granted, he is the Defender of the Faith (or rather the Defender of all Faiths in my opinion) and he is clearly immersed in spiritual and inter-religious issues. However, are such interests enough to warrant those visits that excited or at times over-excited some Christians?

The visits were neither social nor incidental. The Prince wished to visit those Churches in London that trace many of their roots back to the Christian communities in the MENA region. After all, and just taking Iraq and Syria as two pivotal examples, the Syriac, Armenian and Chaldean Churches have millennia-old presence and witness in both those countries. As for the Copts, they remain by far the largest Christian community in the region since they constitute - very roughly - 10 per cent of the overall population of Egypt today.

It does not take much wisdom or media-savvy to realise that those communities are facing hard times and harsh challenges in their own home countries. This is a result of the convulsions that have been heaving many parts of this whole region for well over a decade but were exacerbated further by the uprisings against totalitarian and oppressive regimes some four years ago and by their Doppelgänger effect in the dramatic formation of the Daesh/ISIS movement that has stretched its sinister imprint across Iraq and Syria and is persecuting indigenous (largely Arab) Christians as well as other faith communities such as Yezidis that are not considered by Islam as People of the Book.

In my opinion, Prince Charles visited those church communities to affirm his solidarity with them and express his deep concern for them. He also explored ways to assist the faithful of those churches at a time of dire moral and humanitarian need where many have become refugees and internally-displaced or are rudderless and fearful of the future. After all, did the Holy Family not also become refugees for three years in Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath?

And much as some church officials deemed this visit to be a portentous state visit, I saw it – and welcomed it – as the not-so-simple gesture of a caring human being for his ‘neighbours’. After all, is this not what Jesus instructed us in the Sermon on the Mount? Is this not what the Beatitudes are all about in St Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 5:3-12) or what the Parable of the Great Banquet in Chapter 14 of the Gospel of St Luke teaches us too?

However, much as this visit carried with it a message of hope, I would add two qualifications here that emphasise the existential realities of those indigenous Christians today.

On the one hand, Christians are not alone in facing such moments of hardship. After all, there are other numerically challenged communities (that our Western culture insists upon defining rather inappropriately as minorities) such as the Yezidis, Kurds, Sabeans or Mandaeans who are suffering as much at the hands of their solipsistic political leaders as they are from the eschatological and murderous proclivities of Daesh that reared its ugly head in early 2014.

On the other hand, let me also debunk the myth that all Christians yearn to emigrate from their countries. As the General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches clarified in his various meetings during a visit to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales in London only last month, the majority of those families are compelled to leave their native hometowns solely because they lack any security or protection. If they were provided with this minimum sense of security, many of them would prefer to stay in their own homes.

However, caught as they are between a rock and a hard place, many of those communities are forced to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere - often by forsaking their properties and loved ones too. Yet, some Muslim religious leaders affirm that Christians belong to those lands and are part and parcel of the culture of the MENA region. Only few weeks ago, the newly-appointed Grand Mufti of Lebanon stated that “Christians are the salt of the earth, if they leave wherewith can we provide salt? We want to see them clinging to their homeland, rooted in the land, enjoying all the rights of citizenship, of justice, and of peace and security.”

But does such a positive lucubration by a Sunni leader in Lebanon not also make Christians wonder even more about the truly caustic impact of the Daesh phenomenon? Is it not a fact that some of those communities are wondering openly why many Muslim religious instances are not speaking out more vocally against Daesh? There is alas a perception amongst some of those men and women who have felt the brunt of persecution by Daesh – and that includes many Muslims of different sects – that it is not so simple to claim that one can separate Islam in general from the practices of those groups who are intent on establishing a caliphate that excludes everyone else and uses only the sword as its weapon of coercion?

So while our politicians and religious leaders in the West ululate constantly that Daesh does not represent Islam, a growing number of regional analysts and writers – Lebanese and Egyptian, Sunni and Shi’i – are claiming differently. New literature is appearing in the MENA region – written by Arabs and primarily for Arabs – suggesting that what Daesh is doing today in Raqqa, Mosul or elsewhere, is not too far removed from the standard exegeses of Islam as made manifest in its texts.

Writers and philosophers such as Hussam Itani, Ali Harb, Khaled Ghazal, Dalal Al-Bizri, Ali Mabrook or Sherif Younes posit that Islam – not unlike Christianity in earlier centuries – needs to undergo serious and urgent reform if it does not wish to risk obsolescence. After all, they add, the fiqh or jurisprudence of Islam has been set in stone since its earliest centuries and radical groups such as Daesh are still projecting a jihadist ideology that is compatible with Sayyed Qutb and Ibn Taymiyyeh. Some writers’ dominant theme is in fact a withering challenge to Muslim religious leaders to explain if and how their understanding of Islam today differs from that of Daesh and takfirism.

So it is on the back of such increasing tensions and soliloquies that Prince Charles’ visits to those churches should be construed and welcomed today. And therefore a corollary question for me is whether such visits can alter the reality on the ground? Not very likely. However, what they will do nonetheless is to instil an element of appreciation, consideration and moral support as well as encouragement and hope into his hosts’ lives.

In thinking of Prince Charles’ visits, I am led to think of Julius Caesar’s letter to the Roman Senate after he achieved a swift and conclusive victory at the Battle of Zela. He wrote to them the famous Latin phrase veni, vidi, vici. I am afraid the situation of MENA Christians will be resolved neither swiftly nor conclusively in 2015, but I am genuinely glad that the Prince came and saw … and now it is our collective responsibility to build on this achievement by conquering in some way or other those gnawing and legitimate fears too.

A Bishop of one of the Churches Prince Charles visited this year told me, “Harry, he came to us, and that is far more than many others have done for us to date.” For me, much as this is not a full-proof statement, it is nonetheless an indictment of our collective failure. It is also an endorsement to a caring prince.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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