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Welby invokes Holocaust at vigil for Middle East minorities

03 September 2014


Wake-up call: Archbishop Welby addressing faith leaders at a vigil for peace in the Middle East outside Westminster Abbey on Wednesday

Wake-up call: Archbishop Welby addressing faith leaders at a vigil for peace in the Middle East outside Westminster Abbey on Wednesday

CHRISTIANS in the Middle East have not been treated so badly since the invasion by Genghis Khan in 1259, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Wednesday. He later invoked the Holocaust when addressing an interfaith vigil at Westminster Abbey.

At a press conference at Lambeth Palace in the morning, the Archbishop said: "It took the barbarism of the jihadist militants to wake us up. But this . . . is a new thing. There has not been treatment of Christians in this region in this way since the invasion of Genghis Khan in 1259, 1260. . . I think we find it hard to believe that such horrors can happen."

He was speaking after a meeting and prayer service with representatives of Middle East Churches, many of whom had just come from the region. In a joint statement, read out by Archbishop Welby, they warned that the region was "in desperate danger of losing an irreplaceable part of its identity, heritage and culture".

Archbishop Welby said that his prayers were with the family and friends of Steven Sotloff, the US journalist whose beheading was shown in a video released by Islamic State on Tuesday. Mr Sotloff was "both the latest and most prominent victim, but also he represents many who have suffered in that way but are forgotten".

Asked about the duty of the British Government to offer asylum to those facing persecution in the region, the Archbishop said: "The last thing we want to do is empty the Middle East of Christians. What Christians need there is not only the long-stop of asylum, but also the provision of safe havens and security to enable people to re-establish their communities in the area. Christians have been there for longer than anyone else. It needs to be remembered."

On the question of military intervention, the Archbishop said that there was no consensus among the leaders gathered at Lambeth: "We are aware that history has not been totally encouraging in that area. But there are a mixture of views. Some people feel there needs to be more intervention, at least to buy some time. Others feel that that would be wholly unhelpful."

After the conference, the Archbishop joined Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders at a vigil for peace at Westminster Abbey, organised by Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, and World Jewish Relief. He called the gathering "remarkable".

Addressing the crowd, which included MPs, he said: "Labelling people for persecution is something that we learned much about in Europe in the '30s and '40s, and we are seeing it again."

He wanted to honour the example set by Baroness Warsi, who "set her own career at nothing in order to demonstrate her commitment to hatred of hatred". Lady Warsi, who was at the vigil, resigned as a minister in protest at the Government's policy on Gaza, which she described as "morally indefensible" (News, 8 August).

After praising the efforts of faith-based aid agencies, the Archbishop said that it was "a moment for this to end. It must stop. . . If it does not stop there and in other places around the world, such as northern Nigeria . . . it will continue to spread. It will require courage and time and determination to overcome this evil."

The vigil was addressed by Muslim leaders, including Ayatollah Milani, an imam from the Al-Khoei Foundation, who said that "what is happening in Iraq is the maximum and highest degree of atrocity done to minorities in the name of Islam . . . Our duty here is to show our solidarity towards all these minorities. . . Whatever is done in the name of Islam by ISIS is only misinterpretation of Islam and its values."

On Wednesday, a letter from Prince Charles to the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad, the Most Revd Louis Raphael  Sako, was published. 

"You can have no idea how heartbroken I am to hear of the truly unbearable and barbaric persecution suffered not only by Christians in Iraq but also by some of their neighbours of other faiths," he wrote.

"I wanted you to know above all that my heart goes out to all those whose lives have been shattered by this terrible conflict. Although words seem terribly inadequate at such an unimaginable time of suffering I did just want to offer, through you, my special prayers and profound sympathy to all members of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq. . . 

"It is my fervent hope and prayer that the leadership and the actions of the people of goodwill such as yourself and your brothers and sisters will help overcome the diabolic evil that has wrought this terrible suffering."

In a letter of response, the Patriarch wrote that he was "much moved" by the Prince's words. The Christian community in Iraq had "endured massacres, atrocities and other human rights abuses by the terrorist armed group calling itself the "Islamic State", for the reason of their Faith. We consider it a kind of genocide and are deeply concerned."

He asked the Prince to "encourage the international community to preserve the lives and the dignity of the huge number of people affected by this disaster."

Read both letters here.


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