Pope denounces Middle East violence sparking Christian exodus

Pope Francis lamented the “murderous indifference” of the world to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

By: AP and World Israel News Staff

Pope Francis on Saturday denounced the “murderous indifference” that has allowed violence to consume the Middle East and drive hundreds of thousands of Christians from their homes, calling out global powers for seeking power and profit at the expense of the region’s people during a remarkable gathering of Orthodox patriarchs and Catholic leaders.

Francis hosted the daylong ecumenical service in the Adriatic port city of Bari, Italy, considered a religious bridge between East and West and home to the relics of St. Nicholas, an important saint in the Orthodox Christian world.

Francis greeted the patriarchs outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas, and together they descended to the crypt to pray before the relics and light a flame for peace symbolizing the unity of Christians divided by over 1,000 years of schism.

“We commit ourselves to walking, praying and working together, in the hope that the art of encounter will prevail over strategies of conflict,” Francis said at the end of the encounter as children released doves of peace.

For years, the Vatican has voiced concern about the plight of Christians driven from Mideast communities that date back to the time of Christ. Just last week, Francis decried intensified attacks in southern Syria that killed scores of people and forced tens of thousands to flee.

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Pope condemns ‘occupation’

Francis denounced the “occupation” of Mideast lands and renewed his appeal for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“So many conflicts have been stoked too by forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism that, under the guise of religion, have profaned God’s name – which is peace – and persecuted age-old neighbors,” he said.

Denouncing the weapons trade that fuels the region’s wars, he urged global powers to stop their “thirst for profit that surreptitiously exploits oil and gas fields without regard for our common home, with no scruples about the fact that the energy market now dictates the law of coexistence among peoples!”

Christians have been rooted in the Middle East as minority communities, but their numbers are dwindling amid conflict and jihadist attacks.

Today they make up only four percent of the region’s population, down from 20 percent before the First World War, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said this month, AFP reported.

Since December 2016, more than 100 people have been killed in anti-Christian attacks in Egypt claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS).

According to the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, half of Syria’s 1.5 million Christians have fled the country to escape the war.

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In the Gaza Strip, the number of Christians is in steady decline since the Islamist Hamas movement took power in 2007.

There are around 160,000 Israeli Christians, the vast majority of them Arabs in the north, representing about two percent of the population. They enjoy full freedom and their numbers grow.

The meeting was the first of its kind, gathering most of the Middle East’s Orthodox patriarchs with the head of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church as well as Lutheran leaders and their Christian representatives in the Holy Land. After the public prayer on Bari’s seafront, the black-draped patriarchs and white-cassocked pope met in private inside the basilica and then lunched together, moving around Bari in a bus as if on a school field trip.

‘Complicit silence of many’

In his opening prayer, Francis said the Middle East represented the source of Christianity, where ancient Christian rites and heritage are preserved and where “our very souls are rooted.”

And yet, in recent years the region has been “covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect,” he said.

“All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many,” he lamented. “The Middle East has become a land of people who leave their own lands behind.”

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In a service punctuated by Arabic chant, Aramaic prayer and Catholic hymn, Francis said the Orthodox and Catholic leaders wanted to give voice to those who have none.

“Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference,” he said. “For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches.”