Pope writes letter of solidarity to Christians in Middle East

Rome — Pope Francis has written a Christmas letter to the dwindling Christian community in the Middle East, offering his solidarity in what he calls their "enormous suffering" amid the horrific and sustained violence of the Islamic State group.

Issuing the almost-2,000-word letter in eight languages Tuesday, the pope also says he wishes to visit the region and condemns continued arms trafficking there "in the strongest possible terms."

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs," Francis begins the letter, which was published online and is addressed: "Dear brothers and sisters."

"Sadly, afflictions and tribulations have not been lacking, even more recently, in the Middle East," states the pope. "They have been aggravated in the past months because of the continuing hostilities in the region, but especially because of the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts."

Mentioning the "enormous suffering" of those who have been forced to leave their homes by the violence -- noting particularly children, young mothers, and the elderly -- Francis says the "suffering cries out to God and it calls for our commitment to prayer and concrete efforts to help in any way possible."

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"I want to express to all of you my personal closeness and solidarity, as well as that of the whole Church, and to offer you a word of consolation and hope," states the pope.

Francis' letter Tuesday is the latest in several efforts the pope has made to draw attention to the situation of Christians in the Middle East, where the community is rapidly losing members and facing prejudice and violence.

Some estimates indicate that more than half a million Christians have fled from the country of Iraq alone, seeking shelter in neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria.

Saying Christians in the Middle East are "small flock," Francis says they have a "great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread."

"You are like leaven in the dough," says the pope. "Thank you for your perseverance!"

Francis lauds the Christian community in the region for its attempts to forge cooperation with other religious communities, particularly Muslims and Jews.

"The more difficult the situation, the more interreligious dialogue becomes necessary," he states. "There is no other way. Dialogue, grounded in an attitude of openness, in truth and love, is also the best antidote to the temptation to religious fundamentalism, which is a threat for followers of every religion."

"The majority of you live in environments which are predominantly Muslim," the pope continues. "You can help your Muslim fellow citizens to present with discernment a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and favours peaceful coexistence on the part of all."

Moving to address the international community, the pope says he urges people everywhere "to address your needs and those of other suffering minorities, above all by promoting peace through negotiation and diplomacy, for the sake of stemming and stopping as soon as possible the violence which has already caused so much harm."

"I once more condemn in the strongest possible terms the traffic of arms," states the pontiff. "Instead, what are needed are plans and initiatives for peace, so as to further a global solution to the region's problems."

"You have an enormous responsibility and in meeting it you are not alone," the pontiff tells the Middle East's Christians. "That is why I wanted to write to you, to encourage you and to let you know how precious your presence and your mission are in the land which the Lord has blessed."

"Your witness means much to me!" states the pope. "Thank you! I pray for you and your intentions every day. I thank you because I know that, amid your sufferings, you also pray for me and for my service to the Church."

Ending with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, the pope states: "I do hope to have the chance to come to you in person and to visit and to comfort you."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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