Iraqi Christians pray attend mass at the Mar Youssif Chaldean Church in Baghdad on Easter Sunday this year. (photo credit: AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)
(CNSNews.com) – Pope Francis expressed new concern Thursday for the situation faced by “Christians who suffer in a particularly severe way the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East.”
“Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other areas of the Holy Land sometimes overflow with tears,” he told a gathering at the Vatican of leaders from Eastern rite churches that have links with the Roman Catholic Church.
“We won’t resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians who for two thousand years confess the name of Jesus, as full citizens in social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong,” he said.
The pope appealed for “everyone’s right to a dignified life and to freely profess their faith [to] be respected.”
He also said he would “not rest as long as there are men and women, of any religion, affected in their dignity, deprived of life’s basic necessities, robbed of a future, forced to the status of refugees and asylum-seekers.”
The troubles faced by Middle Eastern Christians are expected to feature prominently when the pope on Monday meets with President Vladimir Putin, during the Russian leader’s visit to Italy.
Russia’s Orthodox Church has strengthened its ties with threatened Middle East churches in recent times, and Putin’s office said late last month Russia was considering granting citizenship to some 50,000 Syrian Christians seeking safe haven.
An Egyptian Coptic woman prays at a church burnt by radical Islamists near Assiut, south of Cairo, on August 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)
Pope Francis’ comments drew attention to the plight of minority Christians targeted by Muslim extremists across the Middle East, especially in the three countries he mentioned.
An exodus of Christians from Iraq over past decade has slashed the size of a community comprising Chaldeans, Syrian Catholics, Assyrians, evangelicals and others, prompting fears that its presence there could become extinct.
The 2011 ousting of the Mubarak regime worsened an already difficult situation for Egypt’s Coptic minority, which faced a surge of violence this year at the hands of Islamists angered by the military’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood administration.
In Syria’s civil war, the mostly Greek, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox Christians are facing an crisis of unprecedented proportions, caught between the warring parties and specifically targeted by radical Islamists among the anti-Assad rebels.
In one of the most recent incidents, rebel shelling targeted two schools in a Christian suburb of Damascus last week, killing five children and the driver of a school bus and injuring several more.
‘Stop the kidnapping, torture and killing’
The religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors USA hopes to secure half a million signatures for a petition it plans to deliver to the United Nations in three weeks’ time, urging the international community to act to safeguard all Syrians, including vulnerable Christian communities.
The petition urges those with influence and power to do everything possible to protect all the people of Syria; to safeguard the Christian community “and in particular stop the assaulting, kidnapping, torture and killing of Christians by extremist and criminal groups”; to make it possible for Christians to remain in, or return safely to their homes; to safeguard their right to worship in peace and safety; and to establish a new Syria that respects religious freedom for all.
Open Doors says Syrian pastors have approached the organization, asking it to speak out on their behalf. Signing the petition is “a practical way to support the Syrian church in its hour of greatest need.”
The petition will be delivered to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on December 10 – marked at the U.N. as Human Rights Day – and be accompanied by presentations at those countries’ embassies around the world.
“Signing this petition could make a huge difference in the lives of millions who are suffering in one of the worst human crisis in our lifetime,” said Open Doors USA president/CEO David Curry. “Open Doors is currently helping through delivery of relief materials, but we also have to advocate on behalf of our fellow followers of Jesus at the highest levels of governments.”