They came from many faith traditions, but on Wednesday, they filled the crypt of London’s Lambeth Palace, home to the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, to address what they called a “state of emergency in the Middle East for Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities.”
Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom initiated the event, drawing together representatives of various Catholic traditions with representatives of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Coptic, Russian, Greek, Syrian, and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, the Church of England, and others.
The representatives declared in a statement that they were gathered together to stand in solidarity and prayer with their persecuted fellow Christians who sought merely to practice their faith and belief in lands where they had lived for centuries. Urging the British government to work within the international community to protect and provide for all those affected by religious violence in the Middle East, they said:
Writing for Independent Catholic News, Father Robin Gibbons of the Greek Melkite Church described the gathering as “deeply moving,” partly because of the of painful personal testimony of clergy describing the experiences of “their suffering Christian people” and partly because of the shared recognition that Christians together form the “One Body of Christ” such that “whenever one suffers it affects us all.”
According to Father Gibbons, the desire to pray was at the heart of the gathering, with the assembled leaders asking for God’s intercession and forgiveness for those who would use his name as an excuse to perpetuate evil. “Part of our Christian life of prayer,” he wrote, “is to reclaim the holiness of God’s name and presence and to reject all attempts to hijack religious belief for truly blasphemous atrocities.”
That Justin Welby, the senior bishop of the Church of England, should have hosted such a gathering and led a prayer service afterwards in the crypt of the palace seems especially appropriate in light of how in February 2012 Queen Elizabeth II had spoken in Lambeth Palace of how she sees the Church of England, of which she is Supreme Governor, as having a role in fostering religious pluralism.
“The concept of the established Church,” she said, “is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
One of Queen Elizabeth’s titles is Fidei Defensor, “Defender of the Faith,” a title originally granted to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521, and following his excommunication restored to him by England’s parliament in 1544. Hitherto, that title has meant that the monarch’s role was to serve as protector of the Church of England, but it would appear that Queen Elizabeth believes it has a broader meaning. Certainly, her son and heir apparent, Prince Charles, thinks so, famously having remarked that he would rather see his anticipated role as “Defender of Faith,” not “Defender of the Faith.”
It may therefore have been in light of this that on August 22, he wrote to the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Archbishop Louis Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, saying it was his fervent hope and prayer that the leadership and action of people of goodwill would “help to overcome the diabolic evil that has wrought this terrible suffering and allow peace to return to the cradle of civilization.”
Describing himself as heartbroken to hear of “the truly unbearable and barbaric persecution being suffered not only by the Christians in Iraq, but also by some of their neighbors of other faiths alongside whom you have lived for hundreds of years,” he offered the bishop and his people his “special prayers and profound sympathy.”
Prince Charles’s letter, which accompanied a donation through Aid to the Church in Need, followed swiftly upon a letter signed by Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, chairman of the International Affairs Department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and several other British religious leaders including Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Christopher Cocksworth, Lord Bishop of Coventry and the Church of England’s Lead Bishop of Foreign Affairs, and leaders of Britain’s Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities.
The letter, published on August 21, described the persecution of Christians and others in Northern Iraq as “crimes against humanity that must be both stopped and punished,” and stated that there was “no religious justification” for the violation of the inalienable human right to freedom of religion and belief.
Describing the actions of the so-called “Islamic State” as “part of a wider global pattern of increased societal hostility and government restrictions against freedom of religion or belief,” the signatories of the letter called upon governments, international institutions and non-governmental organizations to “recognize this wider crisis and commit the necessary time, energy and resources to ensure greater respect for this fundamental freedom in order to attempt to forestall such further tragedies.”
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.