The Prince of Wales ‘gets religion’ – or does he?
(Photo: Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales at special services to remember persecuted believers in the Middle East is becoming a regular feature)
(COMMENTARY) During his two decades promoting “bridges of understanding with Islam” – including setting up an architecture practice to showcase his love of Islamic arts, and being awarded an honorary doctorate by Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt - advocates for suffering Christians tore their hair out with frustration. Did not the future head of the national religion get it?
Now the charismatic and devout heir to the thrones of the United Kingdom is becoming the patron of persecution.
It was not until relatively recently that, following intense efforts to gain his attention, the Prince began to get the full picture.
In 2013 he made his first, somewhat halting speech on persecution, on the stairs of Clarence House, his London residence, in the company of Prince Ghazi of Jordan and those clerics who had persevered in trying to educate him: Rt. Revd. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Canon Patrick Sookhdeo.
But last week, he was the main event, offering a ‘Reflection’ from the pulpit of the nation’s shrine, Westminster Abbey right next door to Parliament, after the opening prayer.
Also present were an astonishing array of Establishment figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rt. Hon. Justin Welby, leaders of 13 Middle East churches, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet Office, Minister David Lidington MP, and members of the Diplomatic Corps.
Abbey personnel, with three persecution charities, Aid to the Church in Need, Embrace, and Open Doors, organized on a ‘Service to celebrate the contribution of Christians in the Middle East.’ It was attended by leaders of many of the world’s most ancient churches, including the new Archbishop of the Coptic Church in London, Bishop Angaelos, and His Beatitude Theophilos III, Patriarch of Jerusalem, had walk-on parts and ethnic choirs sang.
Spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need, John Pontifex, later described the event as “unprecedented”.
“The Establishment recognizing the degree to which the persecution of Christians and other factors together mean we are facing a potential wipe-out of Christians in parts of the Middle East. This is no longer a fringe interest of the few. It has now become orthodox to recognize that at a very high level.” Pontifex said.
Prince Charles now meets regularly with the diaspora churches to hear their stories of loss and displacement.
He said how humbled their ‘grace and forgiveness’ made him.
“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.” he said.
The Prince has never visited the persecuted church overseas, because of security issues, according to Mr Pontifex, though he had met refugees in Jordan.
Since 2013, when concerted efforts were made to help him understand the dark side of Islam, he has made a point of meeting diaspora believers who have escaped persecution to live in London, including the Iraqi Chaldean Christian community at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Family in Acton, London.
He has also attended, partly in his capacity as the future ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England, Advent services at the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre in Stevenage (north of London), and the Melkite Greek-Catholic community who worship at St Barnabas Church in Pimlico.
At the service he paid tribute to the Dominican order of Iraqi sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna, whose representative, Sister Nazek Matty, spoke after the Prince.
“Earlier this year I had the great joy of meeting a Dominican Sister from Nineveh who, in 2014, as Daesh, xtremists 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.
“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. 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 was a testament to ‘Faith’, he said (the word is capitalized on his website).
Prince Charles, who will succeed his mother Queen Elizabeth II to the English, Scottish and Welsh thrones on her death, and who has already taken up her role as Head of the Commonwealth of former nations of the British Empire, once said he wanted to be ‘head of faith’ in Britain, not just the Church of England.
His personal belief that all religions are ultimately the same is underpinned in his closing remarks: “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.”
This despite the fact that the leader of the Church of which he will be Governor – the Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Revd Justin Welby - has spoken of attempts to drive Christianity out of its Middle Eastern birthplace as “the biggest assault on the faith in the area since the invasion of Genghis Khan in the 13th Century.”
Nonetheless the Prince believes the past is characterised by co-existence. “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.
“Indeed, I know that in Lebanon Muslims join Christians at the Shrine of our Lady of Lebanon to honour her together. And I know that there are Muslim faith leaders who have spoken out in defence of Christian communities and of their contribution to the region.
“Co-existence 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.”
Rev Dr Mark Durie, an Anglican priest and Melbourne-based Quranic linguistics expert, has little time for the Prince’s politesse.
“The Prince of Wales has made a profoundly misleading assertion. In fact the opposite is true: Christians in the Middle East have known centuries of inequality, oppression, marginalisation and martyrdom. The current exodus of Christians from their ancient homelands is not an aberration, but merely the latest episode along the bitter trajectory of decline under Muslim dominance.” said Durie.
“The Qur’an does not portray a God who expects people to care for one another. Rather it calls for believers to dissociate themselves from disbelievers in Islam, and to direct enmity against them.” he continued.
“The Prince of Wales’s historical negationism [sic] is deeply threatening. Not only does it deny the true history of the suffering church, but it would thrust Christians back into conditions of dismal ‘coexistence’ which have for so long ensured their decline and dispossession.”
Pontifex at CAN said that he could not be drawn into comment on the scriptural sources of the oppression.
He commended the Prince’s support as “garnering significant support of Muslims in certain parts of the world.”
Dr. Durie, however, lays the problem at the door of the Qur’an itself, which repeatedly commends [Mohammed] as the “best example” to follow. Only by tackling what the Quran says about Muhammad’s example will the persecution stop, he says.
“His example includes many instances of the ill-treatment and subjugation of non-Muslims. said Durie. “If Muhammad did not love his non-Muslim neighbor as himself, and his is the best example for Muslims to follow, how can Islam overlook the moral force of this example?”