Patriarchs of Eastern churches warn against systematic ‘expulsion’ of Arab Christians
ROME – Pope Francis is meeting with the patriarchs of the Eastern churches to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, the Catholic Church's role in Arab countries, its relations with the Orthodox Church and the problems of stability in the region.
Gregory Laham, the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic church has called on his fellow Christians to stay in Syria, despite the brutal conflict raging in the country.
"I say to my children, stay in your country, the future will be difficult, but it will be better, God willing," he said in an interview.
The patriarch, who is headed to the Vatican, also urged European countries to not "encourage Syrian Christians to emigrate."
"I say to the European countries that want to help, help people in difficulty, humanitarian cases but don't encourage people to emigrate," he said.
According to the patriarch, 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict that began in March 2011, around 40,000 of whom have fled to Lebanon.
He said between 1,000 and 1,200 Christians had been killed, both members of the military and civilians.
But he said, "Christians are not the only ones being targeted. All Syrians are being targeted, Shiites and Sunnis and Druze and Christians from all denominations."
The patriarch condemned damage to "at least 57 Christian sites since the beginning of the conflict and accused the United States and other Western countries of prolonging the fighting by arming rebel fighters.
Maronite Patriarch Card Beshara al-Rai, Chaldean Patriarch and Archbishop of Baghdad Raphael Louis Sako, Melkite Patriarch of Antioch Gregory Laham, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX are expected at the three-day meeting that will focus on the Eastern churches in the 50 years since Vatican II.
Led by Card Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Pontifical Council of the Eastern Churches, the conference comes at a critical moment for Christians in the Middle East, whose communities are under constant attacks from Islamic extremists, especially in Syria.
Vatican sources noted that the meeting will mark a change of direction in Vatican policy towards the Middle East. The final statement is expected to reflect the fears of Christians in the region.
The Archbishop of Baghdad recently spoke about the union of Catholic patriarchs and ecumenism with the Orthodox.
"We are hoping for greater closeness towards our Churches in these difficult times," he said. "We need more support from the Holy See, more encouragement and more solidarity".
For him, the crisis in the Middle East is forcing Christians to leave their lands and that this poses a serious threat to the Church's survival.
"Emigration is threatening our present and our future. We fear for our survival," he explained. "Muslims need our witness of human and Christian values", he added.