Following reports of the threats against Christians in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which has led to their flight from a city with a continuous Christian presence for more than 1,600 years; the Iraqui Christian community in the UK organised a demonstration outside Parliament on 26 July. Among its leaders were His Eminence Archbishop Mar Athanasius Touma, Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal Vicar for the United Kingdom; Mgr. Nizar Semaan of the Chaldean Catholic Church and Archdeacon Yonan Yonan of the Assyian Church of the East. They were joined by clergy of many other churches, including Abba Seraphim and the Suffragen Bishop of Warwick and some Muslim leaders anxious to stand in solidarity with their suffering brethren. Following similar demonstrations in the Middle East this past week, several Muslim speakers declared, “I am Iraqi, I am Christian” After several speeches addressing the large crowd which filled Old Palace Yard opposite the Victoria Tower at Westminster, the clergy processed to Downing Street, where the leaders presented an appeal for support to the Prime Minister.
On 17 December HRH The Prince of Wales demonstrated his concern for the Christian communities of the Middle East through a series of engagements and impressive, heart-felt speeches. Having just returned from the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the Prince began his day with a morning visit to the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre at Stevenage, where he was greeted by HG Bishop Angaelos and civic dignitaries. He was accompanied by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed of Jordan, who is religious affairs adviser to HM King Abdullah II of Jordan and a notable advocate of interfaith harmony. This visit began with a short service of prayer, presided over by Bishop Angaelos and Metropolitan Seraphim, after which the Princes were conducted around a display showing the many activities of the Church Centre and met with members of the local congregation and other ecumenical visitors, who had attended the service. Prince Charles was presented with a fine ikon of St. George, with another identical pone for TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the infant Prince George of Cambridge. Prince Ghazi was also presented with an ikon of St. Mary the Virgin. The Princes then adjourned for a brief round table meeting to discuss some of the general concerns about the current situation in the Middle East. Following this the Princes took tea at the Manor House before flying by helicopter to West London.
Here they were received by HE Archbishop Athanasios and HG Bishop Vahan, both natives of Iraq, at the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Acton, where a short service was held and hymns sung in Aramaic. They were able to talk to many of the congregation and hear informed accounts of their suffering.
In the late afternoon Prince Charles held an Advent Reception at Clarence House, with particular emphasis on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Among those attending were Archbishop Gregorios and Metropolitan Kallistos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the Bishops of London, Southwark, St. Albans, Liverpool Reading and Bishop Geoffrey Rowell; the Apostolic Delegate and the Archbishop of Westminster; Bishop Vahan Hovhannesian (Armenian Orthodox), Archbishop Athanasius (Syriac Orthodox), Bishop Angaelos (Coptic Orthodox), Abba Seraphim (British Orthodox), the Archdeacon of the Church of the East, as well as many clergy of other churches.
At the conclusion of the reception HRH Prince Ghali made and eloquent and eirenic speech followed by HRH Prince Charles, who remarked, that he had, “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.”
He highlighted his work over the past two decades for better understanding between Muslims and Christians and spoke of his fear that the dwindling Christian population might be lost altogether, and the serious grounds for us all to be concerned, “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!”
On 6 October Abba Seraphim, in company with his fellow pilgrims, visited the ancient Armenian royal capital of Ani on the Armenian-Turkish border. The magnificent ruins, stretching over more than a square mile on the edge of a deep ravine of great natural beauty, witness to this beautiful city and include the great cathedral of Ani with several churches in various stages of decay. They are a poignant reminder of the great Christian civilisation that once flourished in this area. Sadly, although a world-class monument it is neglected by the Turkish and restoration has not always been sensitive.
Abba Seraphim was among the guests who attended the opening of the new Barnabas Fund library at Pewsey, Wiltshire, on 12 September. The library is housed in a purpose-built, state of the art building designed by the distinguished classical architect, Quinlan Terry, who was among those present. The library is a specialist collection on Islam and Christian-Islamic relations and contains some 50,000 volumes as well as periodicals and electronic resources. Housed on three floors, it includes open shelf reference books, a delightful Reading Room as well as reserve stacks, with a capacity for 10,000 volumes. The Barnabas Fund is also planning to extend its residential capacity to facilitate research conferences and extended research by scholars and specialists.
Following an introductory speech, detailing the scope of the library, by Father Patrick Sookhdeo, the Fund’s International Director, and prayers & scriptural readings marking the library’s inauguration, the guests were entertained to a delightful lunch. After this Father Patrick briefed them on current priorities of the Fund, whilst Caroline Kershaw and Mark Green spoke specifically about the projects undertaken by the Fund to support Christian communities around the world.
Abba Seraphim, a noted bibliophile, spoke enthusiastically of the great service the Fund would now be able to offer to scholars of Islamic-Christian relations. “For years the Barnabas Fund has offered support and practical comfort to beleaguered Christian communities by reminding Christians in the West of the fact that being a Christian is often a dangerous conviction, requiring profound commitment and bravery. This practical support for the neglected and persecuted, done out of deep fraternal love and a desire to follow the Lord’s command to support our weaker brethren, has now expanded to meet the intellectual and philosophical challenges of the dialogue between faiths. The Barnabas Fund has always been rooted in a profound understanding of Islam and to engage Muslims with a sound appreciation of the tenets of their faith, leading to improved relations with Christians and mutual respect.”