Your Excellency, Your Graces, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I did just want to say that it gives me the greatest possible pleasure to be able to join you here this afternoon for this service of prayer with the Melkite Greek Catholic Community in London, along with their hosts from the Anglican Parish of St Barnabas and friends from other churches.
In this very special season for Christians everywhere, when we affirm our belief that Christ has come, and that He is present in the world today, it is, if I may say so, a particular privilege to be able to celebrate the coming of our Lord with a community which trace their origins to the very earliest Christian communities in the Holy Land. I had the great pleasure of meeting earlier this year His Excellency, Archbishop Darwish, the Melkite Archbishop of Zahle, Furzol and Bekka, – who has honoured us all by travelling to London to be with us today - and was profoundly shocked to hear from him about just how much the Melkite community in Syria has suffered and endured.
It does seem to me that in our troubled times, when so many Christians in the Middle East face such desperate trials, there is at least some potential comfort to be found in remembering our connections to the earliest days of the Church. Indeed, as all of you know only too well, the Christmas story itself ends with the Holy Family fleeing for refuge from persecution; just as in 2017 large numbers of Christians, such as the families that I had the particular pleasure of meeting before this service, are being forced to leave their homes in the face of the most brutal persecution on account of their faith. Such barbaric persecution is even more perverse and dreadful when as many Christians seem unaware. The true spirit of reverence, which Muslims display towards Jesus and his mother Mary springs from the fountain head of their faith as described in the Koran.
As someone who, throughout my life, has tried, in whatever small way I can, to foster understanding between people of faith, and to build bridges between the great religions of the world, it is heartbreaking beyond words to see just how much pain and suffering is being endured by Christians, in this day and age, simply because of their faith. As Christians we remember, of course, how Our Lord called upon us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute. But for those confronted with such hatred and oppression, I can only begin to imagine how incredibly hard it must be to follow Christ's example.
It is so vitally important, in this season of Advent and throughout the year, that Christians in this country and elsewhere, who enjoy the rights of freedom of worship and freedom of expression, do not take those rights for granted; and that we remember, and do what we can to support, our fellow Christians for whom the denial of such rights has had such profound and painful consequences.
As we remember those Christians today, it is especially appropriate that we should gather to do so in this Church of England parish which has welcomed, in the most marvellous way, another Christian community to worship alongside it and to share this beautiful Church. It offers us all, if I may say so, a very special example of Christian love and humanity.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as Christmas approaches, I know that many of you, like me, will hold in your thoughts and special prayers all those Christians who are being persecuted on account of their faith. Perhaps we might also, together, commit to doing what each of us can to help ensure that those who are suffering have a brighter year ahead than the one that has passed, so that all of us might share in the blessing promised by the Angels of "peace on Earth and good will to all." I wish you and your families, both here and in your homelands, as peaceful and holy a Christmas as possible.