The Prince of Wales has often spoken of aspiring, when he is King, to be known not as Defender of the (Anglican) Faith, but “Defender of Faiths”. His open attitude towards other religions has been established long enough for him not to need to worry of being accused of Islamophobia.
But recent events in the Middle East have forced him into an intervention he would have been happy to avoid.
“Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ”, he said at an interfaith gathering in Clarence House. And he urged Christians, Muslims and Jews to unite in “outrage” as he warned of the elimination of Christianity in much of the region in which it developed.
The problem is becoming especially acute in Syria and Iraq, where the West appears powerless to help beleaguered Christians. But is the Prince aware of what is happening in the actual places where Christ was born and grew up, and where international pressure could be very effective?
When I was in Israel a year ago there was talk of an passing urgent bylaw which would have criminalised the placing of anything resembling a Christmas Tree in or near restaurants or places of entertainment. This did not actually happen, but it is typical of the Jewish State’s attitude to Christians.
In 2012 there were 125,000 Palestinian Christians in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem (excluding the West Bank and Gaza), or 2 per cent of Israel’s population, down from 8 per cent in 1946, just before the end of the British Mandate in 1947. In that year, Christians made up 85 per cent of the population of Bethlehem, but by 1998 the figure had declined to 40 per cent. Most left for the lack of economic and educational opportunities, exacerbated by draconian Israeli travel restrictions, and the exodus continues.
It’s worse in Nazereth. The Galillean town, where 2,000 years ago the Angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was carrying the son of God in her womb, is a major Christian shrine and its churches attract hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors year round.
When the Israeli army massed against Nazareth in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stayed the hand of his commanders, fearful that the flight of local Christians would incur the wrath of the Vatican and key international allies. Nazareth was allowed to surrender intact. But it became the flagship of the “Judaization of the Galilee” campaign of 1948, a precursor to the massive settlement project in the Occupied Territories which began 20 years later and is now hindering peace negotiations.
A Jewish town, Upper Nazareth, was established on a bluff above Nazareth with the aim of strangling and intimidating the historic city. Nazareth has survived due to the success of three hospitals, founded there by religious charities more than a century ago, and a dozen private schools, set up by religious orders before Israel’s creation for Christian and Muslim pupils.
According to Jonathan Cook, a Nazareth-based journalist and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism, this is intolerable to Upper Nazereth’s openly racist Mayor, Shimon Gapso. He has declared the Christian/Muslim town below “a nest of terror” and is demanding that the government declare it “a city hostile to the state of Israel” and expel its residents to Gaza (!). “It is clear Gapso has the full backing of the Israeli government. Like the foolish homeowner struggling with an infestation of vermin, Gapso is set on burning down the house to rid himself of his problem.”
Nor is Gaspo a lone loon. Many of the 60,000 African refugees to fled to Israel for their lives are Christian. Many of them suffered persecution in Sudan and Eritrea because they were Christian. And yet the Israeli government treats them all as criminals – including babies and toddlers born in Israel – and has just appointed a senior official charged with getting rid of them. The first step has been locking them away in prison camps in the desert.
Your Royal Highness, in the Middle East your own faith now needs defending. Please help your brothers and sisters in Christ where you can: in the Holy Land itself.