Pope bemoans plight of Mid-East Christians

Iraqi Christians attend mass at the Mother of Continuous Aid Church in the Christian village of Ankawa, near the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, on 22 October 2013
Image caption The Iraqi patriarch warns the number of Christians is plummeting in Iraq, and claims authorities are encouraging them to go

The Pope has told Church leaders from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt that the Vatican "will not resign itself to a Middle East without Christians".

He has been meeting Middle Eastern patriarchs in Rome, to discuss the dangers faced by the dwindling Christian communities in the region.

In recent years millions of Christians have been displaced in the region.

They have fled attacks by Islamist extremists and growing tensions since the Arab spring.

Francis said he had spoken to the patriarchs about "those who live in the Middle East, often in small flocks, in environments marked by hostility and conflicts" and "the size of the diaspora, which is notably growing".

He said he was concerned by "the situation of Christians, who suffer in a particularly severe way the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East", amid a belief that some Christians are scapegoated for the actions of Western powers in the region.

"Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other areas of the Holy Land sometimes overflow with tears," he said.

He said he would not rest "while there are still men and women of any religion... whose future is stolen and are forced to become refugees".

Among those meeting Francis were Lebanon's Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara Rai, the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic church, Gregorios III Laham, and the patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean church, Louis Sako, reported news agency AFP.

Patriarch Sako has warned that numbers of Christians in Iraq are plummeting, and claims authorities are handing out visas as part of a "strategy" to help them leave.

On Monday Pope Francis will meet the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Moscow is giving increasing support to Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, with many applying for Russian citizenship.

The BBC's Vatican correspondent David Willey says the Pope has a similar interest in protecting ancient Catholic communities devastated by war and civil conflict.

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