Pope greatly concerned about the fate of Christians in Iraq

The Associated Press / Thursday, June 21, 2007
VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday he was greatly concerned about the fate of Christians in Iraq, returning to a theme he discussed with U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this month.

The pope also denounced the slaying of a Catholic priest in Iraq as a “barbaric killing,” and lamented the overall escalating violence in the Middle East for the second time in a week.

“Particularly in Iraq, the homeland of so many of the Assyrian faithful, Christian families and communities are feeling increasing pressure from insecurity, aggression and a sense of abandonment,” Benedict said during an audience with the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people. The major Christian groups include Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics.

“Many of them see no other possibility than to leave the country and to seek a new future abroad,” the pontiff said. “These difficulties are a source of great concern to me, and I wish to express my solidarity with the pastors and the faithful of the Christian communities who remain there, often at the price of heroic sacrifices.”

In a separate audience, the pontiff expressed sadness over the June 3 killing of a Catholic priest and three aides in Iraq, saying the church was spiritually close to their relatives and “supports them in this hour of authentic martyrdom in the name of Christ.”

During their talks at the Vatican on June 9, the pope and Bush discussed the worsening problems of Iraqi Christians. Bush said the pope “was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion. … He’s worrisome about the Christians inside Iraq being mistreated by the Muslim majority.”

Speaking of the Middle East on Thursday, Benedict expressed “pain and concern over the delicate situation” in the region, and said the Holy Land, Iraq and Lebanon were very much present in the church’s prayers and action.

“The long-sought and long-awaited peace unfortunately is still largely offended,” by violence, the pontiff said. Violence “often degenerates into war, whether or not declared, and ends up becoming a pressing international problem, as is today,” he said.

“I knock on the heart of those who have specific responsibilities to ask that they adhere to the important duty of guaranteeing peace to everybody indistinctly, setting it free from the fatal disease of religious, cultural, historic or geographic discrimination.”

In a pilgrimage Sunday in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, Benedict launched one of his strongest appeals for an end to the “horrors” of fighting and terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East, and decried “the illusion” that force could resolve conflicts.