For more than 20 years, I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding between them. Islam is the second-largest faith community in the world and the second-largest in Britain, and so bridges between Islam and Christianity are something that must concern every responsible person. That is one of the reasons I have been happy to be involved in many faith bridge-building projects, including helping establish the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and setting up the Prince’s School for Traditional Arts in 2004. In 2008, I was honored to be the first Westerner and Christian to receive an honorary doctorate from the 1,000 year-old Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and will continue, God willing, to build bridges whenever possible.
I have for some time felt great concern about those of all faith communities in the Middle East who are suffering so grievously at the present time. The rights of all people of faith in the Middle East should be respected. But it saddens me deeply that the ancient Christian communities are among those facing growing difficulties, despite the fact that part of their long and deeply rooted history in the region is testimony to the tolerance and understanding Muslim leaders have shown in the past. It seems to me that the bridges of understanding which matter to us all are being deliberately destroyed by militant fundamentalists with a vested interest in doing so—and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution. It is my fervent hope and prayer that this should cease.
It is essential to remember that Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East. The church communities there link us straight back to the early Church, as I was reminded by hearing Aramaic, Jesus Christ’s own language, spoken and sung in the Syrian Orthodox Church in London I visited a few months ago. The region has for 2,000 years enjoyed such a rich panoply of church life in the Middle East, including the Antiochian, Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches; the Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as the Church of the East and churches established somewhat more recently, including the Anglican Church. Yet, today, the Middle East and North Africa have the lowest concentration of Christians in the world—just four per cent of the population—and it is clear that the Christian population of the Middle East has dropped dramatically over the last century and is falling still further.
This has an effect on all of us, although, of course, primarily on those Christians who can no longer continue to live in the Middle East; we all lose something immensely and irreplaceably precious when such a rich tradition begins to disappear. It is important to note that Arab Christians—Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Egyptian, as well as those from other Arab countries and from Iran—are not Western Christians living in the Middle East, but native Arabs and Middle Easterners and, as such, are an integral part of the very fabric of society in many Middle-Eastern countries. During my visits to the region I have been fascinated and encouraged to learn about the many links and friendships which cross the boundaries between ethnic and faith groups.
I am fully aware that the Middle East is not the only part of the world in which Christians are suffering and that it is not only Christians suffering there. But, given the particularly acute circumstances faced by the church communities in the Middle East today, I felt it is essential to draw attention to their current plight. In this regard, I welcome the efforts being made to preserve the traditions of hospitality and moderation in the Middle East, in spite of the current severe strains. As my wife and I saw for ourselves during our visit last year, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has once again fulfilled its enormously hospitable obligations and taken in a huge number of refugees, this time from Syria during the present troubles. Both under the late King Hussein, and under His Majesty King Abdullah II’s leadership, Jordan has proved a most heartening and courageous witness to the fruitful tolerance and respect between faith communities. Others in the region are displaying amazing humanity in receiving huge numbers of refugees, despite putting immense strain on their resources.
However mixed the picture elsewhere, I salute the efforts made by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and others, to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding. I was also pleased to meet Christians from many backgrounds and congregations during a visit to Qatar in February.
Now is the time to redouble our joint efforts to stress what binds the three Abrahamic faiths together and, as Christians, Jews and Muslims, to express outrage at what tears us asunder. In doing this, it is important to remind ourselves that an emphasis on love of neighbor and doing to others as we would have them do to us are the ultimate foundations of truth, justice, compassion and human rights—the same way that the Common Word initiative of 2007, now endorsed by so many leading Muslim scholars, sought to point out. Such profound wisdom is at the very heart of all three religions, however obscured the message may have become.
My special thoughts and prayers, therefore, are for all beleaguered communities, of whatever faith and denomination. Beyond prayer, we must also speak up for such communities, and work to help them, along with all our Muslim friends. Does the Qur’an not say:
For each among you, We have appointed a law and a way. And had God willed, He would have made you one community, but [He willed otherwise], that He might try you in that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good deeds. Unto God shall be your return, all together, and He will inform you of that wherein you differed. (The Table, 5: 48)