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The Prince of Wales yesterday raised the plight of Christians in the Middle East during an interfaith discussion he took part in as part of his official visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week. In addition he visited the churches that the Qatari Government has permitted to be built in the capital, Doha, for expatriate Christians.
At a Clarence House reception in December, the Prince voiced concern for Middle Eastern Christians, who he said were increasingly being “targeted” by Islamists. Even before the rise of such persecution, church-building in many Middle Eastern and Gulf nations has long been severely restricted and many have left to pursue safer lives in the West. Converting from Islam to Christianity can lead to ostracism from friends and family and in Saudi Arabia is punishable by the death penalty.
Yesterday’s discussion on the "Christian Muslim relationship in the Middle East" brought together Muslim and Christian clerics and academics in the Qatar capital, Doha.
Although what the Prince said was not made public, Dr Nazila Ghanea, a lecturer in International Human Rights Law at Oxford University commented afterwards: “We welcome [Prince Charles] raising the issue of Christians in the Middle East because it opens up a tricky topic. But he was clear it needs to go beyond figures like himself and involve everyone. It’s not an East v West issue, it’s a matter of human rights and equality for all humans.”
The Chairman of Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue, Professor Ibrahim Al Naimi, said the group talked about religion and conflict in the Middle East and the role religious leaders can play in averting violent conflict. “We agreed that such conflicts are not to do with being a Christian or a Muslim, but about people using religion in a negative way to provoke conflict, especially as we see at the moment is happening in Syria.”
“Prince Charles was especially sympathetic to victims of any faith displaced from their homes due to the violence,” he said.
Dr Mark Farha, of Jesuit-run Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, praised the Prince for having a “principled stance on the looming extinction of Christians in the Middle East” which he said made him “all the more credible”. “Intolerance is intolerance wherever it happens, and he plays an important role as a true bridge builder that also recognises the political problems in this region of the world, especially in Syria.”
Also taking part were the chaplain of the Anglican church in Doha, Canon Bill Schwartz, the priest of Doha’s Greek Orthodox church, Archbishop Makarios Mavrogiannakis, Greek Orthodox deacon, Fr Joseph Forbes and Syrian Islamic scholar Dr Muhamed Al Habash.
Today the Prince visited the Doha Religious Complex that houses the main churches that expatriates – though no Qatari nationals – may attend: the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, which holds Masses in 12 languages, the St Isaac and St George Greek Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Church of the Epiphany, which caters for the many Protestant communities present in Qatar.
He then took part in a discussion with Christian leaders based there, to hear about their experiences of living and working in the region.
The British Ambassador to Qatar, Nicholas Hopton, said the Prince “has a deep commitment to promoting religious tolerance and to the defence of all faiths, in all areas of the world”.
The Prince in December gave a reception at Clarence House with Prince Ghazi of Jordan. In a speech to faith leaders there, Prince Charles noted that Middle Eastern Christians were “increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants” and driven out of their homeland by “intimidation, false accusation and organised persecution”.