This Wednesday saw a series of unprecedented meetings and events in London as The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby hosted leaders and representatives of the Churches of the Middle East and the wider Christian Church in Britain at Lambeth Palace. After discussions regarding the plight of Christians and minority communities in Iraq, Syria and the wider Middle East, a statement was then agreed, expressing solidarity with, and advocating for, all those who continue to suffer gross violations of the fundamental right and freedom to practice their chosen faith.
Flanked by the other church leaders, the Archbishop read the statement to the gathered journalists:
A new situation has arisen which creates a state of emergency in the Middle East for Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities. The recent increase in violence and aggression has resulted in gross violations of fundamental rights and freedoms in the region. We gathered today as Christians including those originally from the Middle East to stand in solidarity and prayer with our brothers and sisters who seek to practice their faith and belief in lands where they have been a continuing presence for centuries.
The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, and home to indigenous Christian communities that have been an indispensable part of its history. Despite the challenges, Christians in the region were and are a stabilising and reconciling presence. Today, particularly in Iraq and Syria, they are at great risk from violence fostered by extremist ideologies which no longer see them as being part of the future. The Middle East is in desperate danger of losing an irreplaceable part of its identity, heritage and culture.
We are seeing an extreme religious ideology that knows no limits in its persecution of those who are culturally or religiously different. Those who promote this intolerance must be challenged and the perpetrators of violence held to account. The suffering of those who bear the brunt of its terror requires us to act and bear witness to their plight, whatever ethnic group or religious minority, they come from. We must provide relief and safety for those displaced and in fear of their lives in consultation with our partners in the region. We must also bring pressure to bear on those who can provide security to those affected.
In meeting and praying together, we give thanks for our brothers and sisters as they continue to live their Christian faith with strength and perseverance. We commit to continue to stand with them in prayer, to speak for freedom from persecution for Christians and all other religious communities and those of no faith who live as minority groups across the region. We also continue to urge Her Majesty’s Government to work within the international community to safeguard and provide for all those affected.
To our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, We “share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Revelation 1:9
At the press conference Justin Welby talked of how the US journalist Stephen Sotloff, whose beheading was shown in a video released by Islamic State on Tuesday, represented many who have suffered in that way “but are forgotten”. He then went on to add:
“It took the barbarism of jihadist militants to wake us up. This is a new thing. There has not been treatment of Christians in this region, in this manner, since the invasion of Genghis Khan. This a new phenomenon and I think we find it hard to believe such horrors can happen.”
This was a day for the Archbishop to forcefully raise the plight of those being persecuted in Iraq, to call for action, but also the need to seek peace.
Later on he joined Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders along with some MPs at a vigil for peace at Westminster Abbey, organised by Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, and World Jewish Relief. He described the gathering as “remarkable”.
In his address Justin Welby 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.” It is “a moment for this to end. It must stop. . . If it does not stop [in Iraq] 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.”
In this one day Justin Welby has explained with clarity and forcefulness much which many of us have longed for the British government to articulate; to publicly acknowledge the truth and extent of the situation for those minorities who have been systematically targeted by IS. And of these minorities Christians have suffered by far the most.
These are the words that could and probably should have been spoken by our Foreign Secretary by now. But even if they had come from Philip Hammond, they would have not had the same weight and authority as they did coming from Justin Welby. This is not because of any religious position the Archbishop holds. Instead it is because he has far more on-the-ground experience of conflict than any member of our government. Nor has any one of them come close to sacrificing as much personal risk, time and energy for the sake of reconciliation and peace as he has.
Even before he was ordained, as an oil executive Justin Welby was witnessing first-hand the deadly conflict raging between Christians and Muslims in Central Nigeria that continues to this day. In 2002 he was appointed as Canon of Coventry Cathedral and co-director of its world-renowned International Centre for Reconciliation (ICR), taking over from Canon Andrew White who went on to become vicar of St George’s Church in Baghdad. During his time in the position he worked closely with Andrew White on peace missions in Iraq. He also regularly visited Nigeria where he often risked his own life conducting delicate negotiations between militant groups in an effort to free hostages, risking his own life in the process. While in Nigeria he was repeatedly blindfolded, held at gunpoint and arrested. Of those experiences Justin Welby has said: ‘On three occasions it looked like I was going to get killed. One plan was to shoot me.’
From the moment Justin Welby became the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, he declared peace making and reconciliation his priority. Working with Canon David Porter, whom he appointed as his Director of Reconciliation, they have focused on many of the world’s more intractable conflicts.
It is no surprise that the latest Diplomat Magazine considers Justin Welby along with Pope Francis to be the world’s most active peacemakers. It states:
‘Both men, with influence over vast numbers of nominal Christians and their political leaders, now look set to make the running in peace-making. Both are determined to halt the deterioration in Christian-Muslim relations around the world. And both are not afraid to speak out, unambiguously, in condemning violence and prejudice.
‘The Church leaders are not attempting to supplant United Nations negotiators or politicians with responsibility for maintaining global security. But at a time when the world’s leaders seem paralysed in the face of its more intractable problems – poverty, injustice, ethnic conflict and civil wars – maybe the Church is rediscovering a role that could make it a formidable political as well as moral force: the role of championing humanitarian causes and chastising those who fail to take a stand against war, conflict and violence.’
We are caught in a time when foreign affairs, wars and conflict dominate the headlines and yet world leaders are unable to find coherent answers to the challenges they face. Those who face the decisions over whether and how to intervene need all the wise counsel they can get.
Justin Welby has much to give at this moment to those who will listen. He has the gift of drawing those in opposition together. He would be an outstanding Foreign Secretary, but this of course will never happen. Instead our country’s leaders would do well to sit with him and learn from what he has to say. He has seen evil firsthand on many occasions and has worked tirelessly to overcome it.
There are few who can match what he has to offer.