Prince Charles defends religious freedom and calls for greater tolerance between Muslims and Christians

Prince Charles has previously spoken of his intention to be defender of faith rather than defender of the faith(Photo: Dan Marsh)

Prince Charles today passionately defended religious freedom during an address at the House of Lords.

"The horrendous and heartbreaking events in Iraq and Syria have brought the subject of religious freedom and persecution to the forefront of the world's news," he said in a video address at the launch of the Religious Freedom in the World report, by the charity Aid to the Church in Need.

"It is an indescribable tragedy that Christianity is now under such threat in the Middle East; an area where Christians have lived for 2,000 years, and across which Islam spread in 700AD, with people of different faiths living together peaceably for centuries."

The Prince suggested "several tangible courses of action that I believe might be helpful".

First, the Prince of Wales called for a renewed commitment to interfaith dialogue. "... rather than remaining silent, faith leaders have... a responsibility to ensure that people within their own tradition respect people from other faith traditions," he said. "We have yet to see the full potential of faith communities working together...My own Christian faith has enabled me to speak to and to listen to people from other traditions, including Islam."

Secondly, he said, governments must uphold the right of people to practise their faith. "Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in stating that this right includes the freedom to change one's religion or belief. Yet even in the West this right is often challenged."

Finally, he said, when we are living in a world in which we are presented with so many "profoundly disheartening" news stories, "it is important that on a personal level, we do not lose hope". He cited the case of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was imprisoned for reportedly converting to Christianity, and eventually released.

"It is cases such as these which remind us of St Paul's words, so relevant to all of those enduring persecution for their faith, that 'suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope'. And hope does not disappoint us."

He finished by offering a prayer of hope for the future. "My heart goes out to all those around the world, but especially at this time in the East... who are so brutally persecuted solely for the faith they profess. I pray too that all people in communities will engage in building respect and tolerance. For without these the very freedom on which society is built is threatened with destruction."

Prince Charles has consistently spoken out against religious persecution. Last year he said he was "deeply troubled" by growing violence against minority faiths, particularly in the Middle East. 

"For twenty years I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding," he said during a reception at Clarence House for religious leaders in December 2013.

"Surely we have now reached a crisis where bridges are being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so.

"This is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organised persecution including to the Christian communities in the Middle East at the present time."

The Prince also sent a letter to Archbishop Louis Sako, Baghdad-based Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, earlier this year condemning the "diabolical evil" of those attacking Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq.

"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, alongside whom they have lived for hundreds of years," the Prince wrote.

"I wanted you to know, above all, that my heart goes out to all those whose lives have been so brutally shattered by this terrible conflict. Although words seem hopelessly 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."

He commended the "material and spiritual support" being offered to those in desperate circumstances, adding: "It is my fervent hope and prayer that the leadership and actions of people of goodwill such as yourself and your brothers and sisters will help to overcome the diabolic evil that has wrought such terrible suffering and thus allow peace to return to the cradle of civilisation."

The Prince also sent a donation to Aid to the Church in Need, describing it as a "small token of assistance".

Also at the House of Lords today were FCO minister Baroness Joyce Anerlay, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra and holocaust survivor Dr Martin Stern.