It is a particular pleasure to be able to welcome you here during this season of Advent. Although, I must say, standing here, as I am, alongside a "wise man from the East", it does perhaps feel just a little more like Epiphany than Advent at the moment!
If I may say so, I am particularly delighted that my old friend, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, has so kindly taken the trouble to be here this afternoon and, indeed, has spent the whole day with me visiting the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox communities in Hertfordshire and London. His Royal Highness is present today representing King Abdullah II of Jordan at His Majesty's particular request and in his rôle as Chief Adviser to King Abdullah for Religious and Cultural Affairs. His Majesty, whom I had the pleasure of seeing recently when he was in London, is, of course, noted for his many noble initiatives to support tolerance and respect for different faith communities. As well as his famous Amman Message in 2004, His Majesty this Autumn addressed the conference convened by Prince Ghazi in Jordan on the challenges facing Arab Christians. I am deeply grateful to His Majesty for his interest in this area and his support for the Christian communities in the Middle East.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as you may know, Prince Ghazi himself is not only a noted Islamic scholar as we've heard greatly to our benefit this afternoon, but, as I have just mentioned, has consistently over the years stood up for the rights of Christians around the world. Not only did he have significant involvement in the adoption by the U.N. of the World Interfaith Harmony Week, but he has also been part of the delegation involving the World Council of Churches which visited Nigeria last year, in addition to the very timely conference which he led this Autumn in Jordan on the challenges facing Arab Christians.
So, Your Royal Highness, I am especially grateful that you have taken the time and trouble to be here in the United Kingdom today. I am very conscious of the deep history between our two countries and, if I may say so, your visit today stands in the long tradition of beneficial leadership by the Hashemite Royal family.
For myself, I have for some time now been deeply troubled by the growing difficulties faced by Christian communities in various parts of the Middle East. It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants. Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ. Their church communities link us straight back to the early Church, as I was reminded by hearing Aramaic, Our Lord's own language, spoken and sung a few hours ago.
Yet, today, the Middle East and North Africa has 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 dating back two thousand years begins to disappear. It is, therefore, especially delightful to see such a rich panoply of church life here to-day, 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, dare I say it, somewhat more recently, including the Anglican Church!
In saying all this about the difficulties facing the Christian churches in the Middle East I am, of course, conscious that they are not the only faith community in this region suffering at the moment, nor is the Middle East the only part of the world in which Christians are suffering, but, given the particularly acute circumstances faced by the church communities in the Middle East to-day, I felt it worthwhile to draw attention to their current plight. It is important to note, above all, that the decline of Christians in the region represents a major blow to peace as Christians are part of the fabric of society, often acting as bridge-builders between other communities. This crucial role throughout Middle Eastern society is one recognized by many Muslims (who are not extremists), both Shia or Sunni, who attest to the fact that Christians are their friends and that their communities are needed.
Jordan has set a wonderful example in this regard and, as my wife and I saw for ourselves during our visit earlier this year, has again taken in a huge number of refugees, this time from Syria during the present troubles and, moreover, is, as I have alluded to earlier, under His Majesty King Abdullah II's leadership, a most heartening and courageous witness to the fruitful tolerance and respect between faith communities.
For twenty years, I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The point though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where the bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so – and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution – including to Christian communities in the Middle East at the present time.
Let us remember we are talking about Arab Christians – Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi Christians, as well as those from other Arab countries and from Iran – not Western Christians living in the Middle East.
Now, of course, is the time to re-double our combined efforts to stress what binds the three Abrahamic faiths together and, as Christians, Jews and Muslims, to express outrage at what tears us asunder. And surely there is no better time to do so than at Christmas – to remind all of us that an emphasis on love of neighbour and doing to others as we would have them do to us are the ultimate foundations of truth, justice, compassion and human rights. Such profound wisdom is at the very heart of all three religions, however obscured the message may have become.
My prayer this afternoon is for all beleaguered communities and I believe that Western Christians ought to pray earnestly for fellow-believers in the Middle East. I am reminded that to-day in the Eastern Christian calendar it is the festival of Daniel and the three boys in the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They symbolize all those who are persecuted for their faith. But the important point is: they survived!